A solicitor cleared of all the substantive charges against him by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has still been struck off because he misled the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) during its investigation.
Eight out of nine allegations against Ehsan Kabir were dismissed, but by giving misleading information to the regulator, he was found to have acted both dishonestly and with a lack of integrity.
His one-time co-owner of No1 Solicitors in Oldham, Lauren Anderson, was cleared of multiple allegations as well, but she admitted in a part a further five and was given a suspended suspension for practising without authorisation.
Mr Kabir was born in 1986 and admitted in May 2013, while Ms Anderson was born in 1981 and admitted in 2007.
In December 2013, Ms Anderson applied for the SRA to authorise the firm. At the time, they each owned half the shares in the firm, with Ms Anderson as sole director and Mr Kabir as employee.
This was approved from March 2014, and soon after Mr Kabir became a director of the firm. In August 2015, Ms Anderson ceased to work at the firm and submitted a report to the SRA raising concerns about Mr Kabir’s professional conduct. Three days later, he did the same about her.
The SRA launched an investigation into No1 Solicitors. This was followed, in 2017, by a second investigation into Anderson & Moores Consultancy and Mediation Services, after District Judge Iyer raised concerns with the regulator that Ms Anderson was working through a firm that had not been authorised.
The SDT rejected the primary allegation made against both solicitors that, up until August 2015, No1 Solicitors was “not in reality run as one law firm but was simply an umbrella name for two separate businesses”.
The tribunal ruled: “Whilst it was very clear that there had been a serious breakdown in relations between the respondents, the tribunal did not consider there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the firm was not run as one law firm…
“There was a single legal entity, which amongst other things paid the firm’s staff… The tribunal considered that solicitors in partnership were entitled to decide how to share and administer their profits in any way which did not offend the applicant’s rules. The business plan did not provide for two separate businesses.”
It rejected allegations that they failed to notify the SRA of material changes to the firm, with the exception of the change when Mr Kabir became a director. Ms Anderson admitted breaking both the code of conduct and authorisation rules by not doing this.
An allegation that Mr Kabir told Ms Anderson to cease carrying out her cases at the firm and instead practise as a freelance solicitor was rejected because – although Ms Anderson did give an undertaking to stop working on cases after a wasted costs order was made against her in one – the evidence did not show that he directed her to practice as a freelance solicitor or in any unauthorised way.
Ms Anderson signed a contract to continue as No1 Solicitors’ COLP, COFA and manager, however, and the SDT rejected the charge that this was improper.
It said: “The tribunal accepted the submission that many employees fulfil the roles of COLP, COFA and approved manager. The tribunal did not consider that the employment relationship itself was improper.”
But the SDT found Mr Kabir had dishonestly misled the SRA over the date when the shareholders agreement between the two solicitors had been signed and the date on which Ms Anderson ceased to be a director.
It found Mr Kabir’s explanation of how he came to give contradictory answers on these points to the SRA to be “deeply implausible”.
“The tribunal’s assessment of his vague and hesitant evidence was that it was self-serving and designed to reconcile as far as possible wholly contradictory statements he had made on the same issue.”
It concluded: “The tribunal had found [Mr Kabir] to lack credibility and to have given information and evidence according to his perceived interests.
“He had made flatly contradictory statements and the tribunal had found that he must have known that some of which were untrue. He had accordingly knowingly misled the [SRA].”
The same allegations that had been dismissed against Mr Kabir were dismissed against Ms Anderson too.
In relation to her work as a supposed freelance solicitor, which she said meant as a consultant to another law firm, the tribunal said it was possible that she acted for clients as an agent of and via either No1 Solicitors or the other firm.
The tribunal found Ms Anderson to be “a credible witness generally” who provided “immediate, open, credible, cogent and clear answers to questions”.
However, she admitted conducting reserved legal activities between January 2016 and September 2017 when she was not authorised to and without proper indemnity insurance.
But the tribunal said she had not been dishonest because she genuinely and transparently believed she could practise as she did.
She admitted “providing misleading information” by giving consumers the impression from its website that Anderson & Moores Consultancy and Mediation Services was authorised and regulated by the SRA when it was not – but the tribunal said this was not dishonest because it was a web developer who had unexpectedly made the site live.
Ms Anderson further admitted that between September 2017 and January 2019, after her practising certificate had been suspended by the SRA for her work at Anderson & Moores, she had worked as paralegal at another firm when in fact she still needed a practising certificate (PC).
The tribunal said her ignorance of this requirement was “genuine [but] not acceptable”.
The SDT concluded that she had displayed “at best a cavalier approach to professional regulation”, but there had been no findings of dishonesty or lack of integrity justifying a strike off.
Ms Anderson was given a one-year suspension, suspended for two years if she complied with conditions on her PC. These prevent her from being a sole practitioner, partner, or compliance officer or working as a solicitor in any job without SRA approval.
The SRA’s claimed costs of £111,700 were reduced to £77,700 to reflect the matters found not proved. Mr Kabir was ordered to pay £35,500 and Ms Anderson £42,200.