A solicitor who suggested a dishonest scheme that would allow his client to commit benefit fraud – and enrich himself – has been struck off.
Altaf Husen Bhurawala was also found to have put his interests before those of another client.
Mr Bhurawala, who qualified in 1993, owned Essex firm Morgan Hall, which closed earlier this year.
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) heard that, in 2011, the firm successfully represented ‘MS’ in a dispute with his landlord (‘SS’), leading to an award of £33,000 in damages, plus interest and costs.
The following year, MS instructed the firm to enforce the judgment debt against two properties owned by SS and a final charging order was obtained. But SS had insufficient equity in the properties to satisfy the debt.
In early 2020, SS said she was finally able to pay the debt, by which time £116,000 was owed, with interest and the costs of enforcement included.
The evidence – including a covert recording MS made of a meeting with his solicitor – showed that Mr Bhurawala then put forward a scheme to deal with the money so that MS would not lose his entitlement to benefits.
This involved paying MS £16,000 – the maximum capital he was allowed – and then some of the money to MS’s family and some of it to the law firm, which Mr Bhurawala would then repay in cash to MS, having taken his “bit”.
He produced a sham client-care letter and conditional fee agreement that MS would be able to show to the benefits agency if questioned about the money.
Though there was no evidence that the scheme was actually put into action, the SDT found Mr Bhurawala’s actions “contrary to the constitutional principle of the rule of law and the proper administration of justice”. They also lacked integrity and were dishonest.
The second matter followed work done for ‘EN’ in a contentious probate matter, which led to a payment of nearly £115,000 into the firm’s client account in 2013.
It stayed there until 2018, the failure to return the money by then being a breach of the accounts rules. “The responsibility to return the monies promptly was not abrogated by the fact that EN had not contacted the firm to ask for [their] return,” the SDT said.
In 2018, Mr Bhurawala arranged for EN to loan a contact of his, ‘MOO’, together with ‘TOO’, £75,000 for a property investment. The terms were that she would be repaid £125,000 after 12 weeks.
The loan was to be secured on a property TOO was to inherit in London but, at that point, it was not registered in his name. Mr Bhurawala only managed to get this done when the 12 weeks were up.
He had not informed EN that the loan was not secured and did not advise her of the “inherent risks in making the loan particularly in light of the interest rate”, the SDT said.
The loan was not repaid and, instead of advising EN to take enforcement action, the solicitor arranged for his own company to lend £75,000 to TOO, who then repaid EN interest-free.
Mr Bhurawala told TOO that he was legally bound to repay his company £125,000, even though EN’s loan was not transferred to him and there was no agreement to that effect. The payment was made.
The SDT found that Mr Bhurawala had failed to act in EN’s best interests and lacked integrity.
Mr Bhurawala denied the allegations but the SDT upheld them all, rejecting his claim that MS had intimidated him with threats to kill him.
In deciding that striking off was the only appropriate sanction, the SDT said Mr Bhurawala “had been motivated, in part, by personal gain”.
It went on: “He had taken unfair advantage of TOO and had failed to EN to take enforcement action so that he could benefit personally from the new financial arrangement… Mr Bhurawala’s conduct had caused immense harm to the profession.”
He was also ordered to pay costs of £31,180.