Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal erred in failing to strike off dishonest solicitor.

Mr Rahman’s employment as a Solicitor at Charles Russell LLP (“the firm”) was terminated in October 2009.  He was not dismissed for misconduct, nor made redundant; he had simply not performed to the standards expected.

A week after his dismissal, template letters purporting to be from the firm, addressed to Halifax Plc were found amongst the personal belongings he had asked the firm to return to him.

The firm requested clarification from Mr Rahman. He responded that the letters were “nothing untoward” and that they had been prepared in connection with a mortgage rate he was seeking. Although not explicitly stated, his response intimated that he had never written in the firm’s name to Halifax.

Enquiries were made of Halifax, which confirmed that a letter had been sent from a staff member of the firm, detailing the termination of Mr Rahman’s employment “by redundancy”.  Another document contained a forged signature.

It transpired that Mr Rahman had a mortgage protection insurance policy with Halifax. He understood (it later transpired, erroneously) that his mortgage payments would be covered if he was made redundant, but not if his employment was terminated on the grounds of poor performance.

Before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), Mr Rahman fully admitted his dishonesty which, he said, was borne out of fear that he might lose his house. Although recognising that “striking off would be the normal outcome where a solicitor had been dishonest”, in acknowledging Mr Rahman’s “act of panic”, remorse and youthfulness, the SDT considered this an “exceptional case” and imposed a 12-month suspension.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority appealed on the basis that the suspension was unduly lenient. It argued that the SDT had understated the gravity of the case and was wrong to regard it as exceptional.

Holman J applied the principles from Salisbury v Law Society [2008] EWCA Civ 1285, which confirmed that there is a small, residual category of cases of dishonesty where striking off is disproportionate. Alongside other established authorities, confirming that the nature, scope and extent of the dishonesty must be considered, as well as whether it was momentary or over a lengthy period, and whether it benefitted the solicitor, he concluded that the SDT had erred in its decision. Mr Rahman’s acts of dishonesty spanned a period of at least a week. Although not long qualified, he was under the same obligation of honesty as every other solicitor, and his dishonesty was designed to benefit him. Holman J also characterised Mr Rahman’s abuse of the firm’s headed paper as a matter “of the utmost gravity”.

In allowing the appeal and substituting the sanction for one of striking off, Holman J stated that the SDT’s reasoning had been “seriously flawed” and that “had they properly considered and applied what has been established by the courts…then there was only one decision the SDT could possibly have properly imposed in this case”.

This case demonstrates that the Courts will intervene to ensure that the established case law relating to striking off dishonest professionals is consistently upheld.