Solicitor persuaded vulnerable client to send him explicit photos


WhatsApp: Solicitor claimed it was connected to firm’s case management system

A solicitor who misled a vulnerable family law client into sending explicit photographs of herself to his personal mobile phone has been struck off.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found “no credible motivation” for Sunny Sidhu to request the images “other than in pursuit of his own sexual gratification”.

He had known her to be vulnerable and he had exploited that “for his own ends”.

His argument that he needed them to pursue a non-molestation order against the client’s ex-husband in the future, in the event he turned to ‘revenge porn’, did not stack up and was not supported by anything on the file, it said.

Mr Sidhu, who qualified in 2018, was 32 at the time of the events, when he was working in the Hinckley, Leicestershire office of LDJ Solicitors.

He began acting for ‘Person A’ in November 2020 in respect of divorce proceedings and obtaining a prohibited steps order against the father of her children.

Having obtained the order on an interim basis, there was a first hearing and dispute resolution appointment on 1 April 2021. The proceedings were brought to a close at this hearing and the order remained. The file was closed a few weeks later.

According to Person A, in January 2021, in response to questions from Mr Sidhu about revenge porn, she confirmed that her ex-husband would have many explicit videos and photos of her.

When Mr Sidhu asked if she believed her ex-husband was capable of putting them online, she said he was.

In response, he told Person A that he needed all the photos and videos she had ever sent, ahead of the April hearing, and that, if she did not send them, her evidence would be invalid and she risked being accused of generating the images after the fact or uploading them herself.

Person A said she believed what Mr Sidhu was telling her and that he requested she send the images every time they spoke over the next six weeks. She said Mr Sidhu predicted that her husband would use revenge porn to retaliate against losing contact with his children.

Despite her hesitation in doing so, Person A eventually sent him up to 20 images using WhatsApp, which he said would be uploaded to a secure file on the firm’s case management system and then be deleted from the phone.

The SDT recorded: “She states that she sent images that were graphic enough to stop the respondent asking for photos, but none that were pornographic. She stated that some of the images showed partial frontal nudity, such as her being topless or wearing see-through underwear.”

Mr Sidhu confirmed to her they had been uploaded and deleted.

In later conversations, he then asked for more photos, although the requests stopped after the April hearing.

“Person A states that she sent the messages as at that point in time she felt useless in life and not qualified to make decisions for her own life. She describes being compliant with anyone that had authority over her; she trusted him.”

It was only in June 2022, by which time Mr Sidhu had left the firm, that Person A called to speak to him and then explained about the supposed file of images on its system to another member of staff. The firm could not find any such file and reported him to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

The SDT explained that Mr Sidhu had not required any of the SRA’s witnesses to attend and give oral evidence – meaning he was deemed to have accepted it – but then sought to challenge aspects of their written evidence in his own examination in chief.

He said he had asked for the images as the client wished him to prepare a non-molestation order against her ex-husband, and denied that he had asked for them multiple times. He could not remember why the order was not pursued – there was nothing about it on the file.

Mr Sidhu also contested the firm’s evidence that it was not possible to upload images from a phone or WhatsApp to the case management system, although he claimed that, in this instance, he was not able to do it. But he said he still deleted them from his phone.

The SDT found that, while “it was possible that [Mr Sidhu] may have had an intention to pursue a non-molestation order at some uncertain point in the future”, the reasoning for his actions “broke down” during cross-examination, “appearing confused and non-sensical”.

It explained: “During his evidence, the respondent contradicted himself, first stating that he stood by his decision to apply for a non-molestation order and then when questioned as to the need for such an order at that stage he appeared to agree that it had not been needed, stating that his lack of experience had been to blame.

“The tribunal viewed the respondent’s account as generally lacking cogency and credibility, particularly when contrasted to the evidence of Person A.”

Mr Sidhu’s texts had given the clear impression to Person A that he had successfully downloaded the images onto the firm’s case management system, but partner Nikki Greenwell told the tribunal that it was not standard practice for a solicitor to obtain explicit images in such cases as Person A’s, nor to use WhatsApp to communicate with clients or obtain evidence using it.

The SDT said: “In such unusual circumstances it would have been vital for the respondent to have set down on the file detailed attendance notes.” But there were none, nor any evidence to suggest that the images had been uploaded.

“Objectively, the images had not been required for the hearing on 1 April 2021 and the tribunal found that he would have known this at the relevant time and that he would have known at that time that the images had not been required for any legitimate purpose.

“The tribunal found there was no credible motivation for the respondent to request explicit images from Person A, a vulnerable person other than in pursuit of his own sexual gratification.”

On the balance of probabilities, it found Mr Sidhu had not uploaded the images and had knowingly and dishonestly misled Person A.

In deciding to strike him off, the SDT said he had “taken advantage of a vulnerable person who he had deliberately targeted”.

It continued: “This had been an egregious abuse of his position in which he had coerced Person A into sending him images contrary to her instincts that this was wrong. The images were solely for his sexual gratification.

“The failure to make attendance notes and his failure to tell Person A that he had not uploaded the images to the case management system were designed to conceal the misconduct.”

The SDT also ordered him to pay costs of £32,400.




Leave a Comment

By clicking Submit you consent to Legal Futures storing your personal data and confirm you have read our Privacy Policy and section 5 of our Terms & Conditions which deals with user-generated content. All comments will be moderated before posting.

Required fields are marked *
Email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog


The marathon to achieving equity in law

For those in the legal profession, the road to gender equity is a marathon and, although considerable progress has been made, the sector has some miles to go.


Building a brand – lessons from Cazoo

Building a brand takes more than money – just ask Alex Chesterman, the founder of ill-fated online used car retailer Cazoo, which collapsed into administration last month.


The future of organic search for law firms

In a significant turn of events, thousands of internal Google search API documents have recently been leaked, shedding light on the intricate workings of the search giant’s ranking algorithms.


Loading animation