A criminal law solicitor who described himself as “absolutely terrified” by a Court of Appeal appearance was incompetent but not dishonest, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has concluded.
Issuing a reprimand, the SDT said he “had indeed been ‘a rabbit caught in the headlights’ when he had unexpectedly found himself appearing before Court of Appeal judges”, who subsequently reported him to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for his conduct of the case.
Afame Kingsley John Offiah was principal of JDS Solicitors in East London at the time of the misconduct. He was born in 1966 and admitted in 1999.
His client, Mr B, had pleaded guilty to one count of possession class B drugs and another of converting £140,000 of criminal property in 2011. He was sentenced to three years in prison for both offences. He appealed unsuccessfully.
Mr B was released from prison in August 2012, and there were two confiscation orders made against him in November. He decided to change solicitor and instructed Mr Offiah in March 2013.
Mr Offiah lodged an application for leave to appeal against his criminal sentence and confiscation orders at the Court of Appeal in August 2014.
The grounds of appeal referred to Mr B not having previously appealed.
The court found the grounds the solicitor had drafted to be “totally ineffective” – saying the errors they contained were so basic that it had questioned whether a qualified lawyers “could have been near them”.
It was a “totally hopeless application” that had taken up many hours of “precious time and resources”.
The tribunal accepted that Mr Offiah had been confused during the hearing “due to the combination of lack of papers and the stress, panic and anxiety he had felt when answering questions from the senior judges”.
The tribunal also accepted Mr Offiah’s explanation that, at the time he had drafted the grounds of appeal, he had not known that Mr B had previously appealed.
It said Mr Offiah “genuinely believed” what Mr B had told him, although this was because of a “lack of diligence” on his part.
During the hearing in December 2014, Mr Offiah admitted to the court that there had been a “catastrophic failure” to review and deal with the case properly and that Mr B had paid for a service that was “complete and utter rubbish”.
Lady Justice Heather Hallett, vice-president of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, Mr Justice Cranston and Mr Justice Knowles described Mr Offiah’s explanations in their ruling as “totally unsatisfactory, and with respect evasive” and displaying “a lack of competence we find astonishing”.
Mr Offiah’s appeal was summarily dismissed on the grounds that it was “frivolous or vexatious”.
Following the hearing, a report was sent to the regulator by the Registrar of the Criminal Appeals Office, on the directions of Hallett LJ.
This referred to the solicitor’s conduct “taking scarce judicial resources from meritorious cases”.
Mr Offiah was accused by the SRA of giving “untruthful and/or misleading answers” to the Court of Appeal when the judges questioned him at the hearing, and also attempting to mislead the SRA.
Both these allegations were rejected by the tribunal, and with them the allegation that he had acted dishonestly.
Mr Offiah admitted the SRA’s allegations that he had failed to “competently conduct” an application to the Court of Appeal, including drafting “misleading and defective” grounds of appeal.
The tribunal said the solicitor had provided a “poor standard of service” to Mr B by failing to submit an accurate application for leave to appeal, failing to respond to court correspondence, and failing to carry out a “timely review” of the case having read the papers “only a few days before the hearing”.
The SDT heard that in September 2014, around the time of the appeal, Mr Offiah had been ordered to “summarily leave” his offices by his landlord, putting him under “tremendous pressure to find new premises quickly”.
Mr Offiah said Mr B, a “broken man”, had told the solicitor that he had not appealed his conviction.
The solicitor told the tribunal he had attended the Court of Appeal “completely unprepared for a hearing” and expecting only “a telling off” with possibly a costs order.
He described what happened as “the most frightening time” of his entire career.
The SDT found that Mr Offiah’s actions were not premeditated or planned, and he had “somewhat foolishly” accepted what he had been told by Mr B.
He had tried to withdraw the appeal “at the eleventh hour”, but failed to sign the appropriate form.
In mitigation, it noted his unblemished record up to this point, that the misconduct related to a single case, that he had repaid Mr B all the fees, and that Mr Offiah has taken “significant steps” to improve his practice to ensure there was no repetition.
Mr Offiah was reprimanded and ordered to pay £4,000 in costs.