An appeal brought by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority following a two day hearing at which Mr Imran was suspended from practice as a solicitor for a period of two years, following a finding of dishonesty. The SRA appealed on the basis that the sanction imposed was excessively lenient and that the court should substitute an order striking off the Respondent. The appeal was dismissed and costs awarded to the Respondent.
On 20 February 2010 Mr Imran [“Respondent”] was driving at a speed that activated a speed camera, causing him to be issued with a notice of intention to prosecute. The notice was dated 26 February 2010. During the course of a conversation the Respondent had with a third party, the Registrant was informed that there may be a person who could provide details which would in effect make the ticket ‘go away’.
On 22 March 2010, the Registrant visited a garage in Oldham and completed the Section 172 notice providing false details, which he was given by a person in the garage. The notice contained warnings in relation to the Perjury Act if false statements are provided.
Having been notified by the police of an investigation into the false details on the notice, the Respondent wrote to them accepting that he had completed the details incorrectly and apologised for what he had done. On 27 February 2012, he was charged under Section 5A of the Perjury Act 1911. The Respondent was sentenced on 20 July 2012 to two months’ imprisonment for an ‘offence so serious because deliberate attempt to circumvent traffic legislation by a man trained in law’.
The Respondent was charged by the Solicitors Regulation Authority [“SRA”] as follows:
- 1.1 He placed false details on a Section 172 Notice – Request for Information – and thereby failed to:
- 1.1.1 Uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice in breach of Rule 1.01 of the Solicitors Code of Conduct 2007….;
- 1.1.2 Act with integrity in breach of Rule 1.02 of the 2007 Code.
The Respondent did not offer a defence in principle but the tribunal was invited to determine the issue of the length of time which was engaged in the acts of dishonesty in the case. The SRA submitted that the period of dishonesty was wide, from the provision of the notice on 26 February 2010 to 22 March 2010, the date of the completion of the notice. The Respondent contended that the dishonesty was only over the course of a day or so and gave evidence in accordance with this proposition.
The Tribunal concluded that the allegations as drafted related solely to the conduct of the Respondent on the day in question (the completion / signing of the notice) and limited its findings accordingly. The Tribunal, in considering the issue of sanction, weighed the aggravating and mitigating factors, which included that the Respondent clearly sought a benefit in that he wished to avoid penalty points and the possibility of increased insurance premiums. The Tribunal determined that his actions were not planned but spontaneous and the Respondent’s lack of experience was considered – he was a trainee solicitor at the time of the offence. In addition, he had shown insight and remorse.
Notwithstanding this, there was some harm to the public in that legislation designed for public safety had been circumvented. The Tribunal considered the Guidance notes on sanction, the case of Bolton v Law Society  1 WLR 512 and the relevant cases as to the issue of what could be considered an exceptional case so as to consider that striking off was not the appropriate sanction.
The Tribunal concluded that the Respondent’s dishonesty had been of very short duration in that it occurred in a matter of hours on one day and a period of suspension for two years would mark the seriousness of the misconduct taking into account the Respondent’s lack of maturity at the material time and would be sufficient to maintain the reputation of the profession.
The SRA, on appeal, contended that the tribunal’s decision that the dishonesty was not planned and was spontaneous was unsustainable. It was further submitted that the tribunal did not understand the gravity of the offending, namely making a false declaration and lying in respect of a statement of truth, the latter being part of the day-to-day practice of many solicitors.
The second main submission of the SRA was that many of the factors relied upon by the tribunal were not exceptional, including making full and frank admissions, showing insight and remorse or the relative youth of the Respondent at the time of the incident.
Handed down by Mr Justice Dove
Mr Justice Dove considered that the starting point in cases of this nature must be the decision in Bolton v Law Society.
The approach in Salsbury v Law Society  EWCA Civ 1285 was confirmed: ‘The High Court must pay considerable respect to the sentencing decisions of the tribunal. Nevertheless if the High Court, despite paying such respect, is satisfied that the sentencing decision was clearly inappropriate, then the court will intervene’.
Mr Justice Dove considered the case of Solicitors Regulation Authority v Sharma, in which it is ruled that there was a ‘small residual category where striking off will [be] a disproportionate sentence in all of the circumstances’. Dove J considered that small residual category to be those where there are exceptional circumstances and it is important to bear in mind the sensitive nature of the investigation which will be undertaken by the tribunal in considering the appropriate sanction in cases of dishonesty. It was considered that the exceptional circumstances needs to be understood in the context of the expertise and experience of the tribunal which is being considered, alongside the test derived from Salsbury that it is only where the tribunal has reached a decision which is clearly inappropriate that the court should in cases of sanction intervene.
The importance of the degree of culpability and the extent of the dishonesty was confirmed as being at the heart of, and carrying the most significant weight in, any assessment of exceptional circumstances. Notwithstanding this, Mr Justice Dove concluded that the tribunal made a proper finding which was carefully reasoned and based on evidence. Dove J considered that the tribunal had properly acknowledged that the conduct ‘thwarted the administration of justice’ and as such was not persuaded that the tribunal did not acknowledge the seriousness of the offence.
With regard to the submission that the factors relied upon by the tribunal as exceptional were in fact routinely encountered in similar cases, Dove J considered that it was not possible to ‘pick off individual features of the case’ but important to focus on the extent of the dishonesty and the impact of that dishonesty on the character of the solicitor and the wider reputation of the profession. This was appropriately weighted by the tribunal and as such was properly identified as an exceptional case.
Mr Justice Dove concluded that the outcome was therefore not ‘clearly inappropriate’. The appeal was dismissed in its entirety and costs awarded to the Respondent (a notional figure due to the Respondent’s failure to lodge a costs schedule).
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