Bruce Ihionkhan Ighalo v The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) [2013] EWHC 661 (Admin)

Mr Ighalo appealed against the decision of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (the tribunal) to strike him off the Roll.

Mr Ighalo had admitted four allegations of misconduct. The tribunal had also found four further allegations - including dishonest use of client money and dishonest communication with the SRA - proved and ordered that he be struck off the Roll.

Mr Ighalo appealed on two grounds. The first ground was that the composition of the tribunal was not independent or impartial. Specifically, one particular member of the tribunal - Mr Hegarty - had previously been on the SRA’s Adjudication Panel. In this position, Mr Hegarty would have made decisions such as when the SRA should exercise its disciplinary powers and refer individual solicitors to the tribunal.

Mr Ighalo argued that Mr Hegarty:

  •  was at risk of a ‘close institutional connection’ with the SRA;
  • had been at fault for failing to disclose his previous membership of the SRA’s Adjudication Panel; and
  • was a joint defendant with the SRA in proceedings arising from a decision made by an Adjudication   Panel of which he was the head. Given that the SRA may be providing a panel member with legal  advice or paying his legal fees, there may be a continuing financial connection with the SRA and so  the member in question could not, therefore, be said to be independent from the SRA.

The court noted that, by the time of the tribunal hearing, over two years had elapsed since Mr Hegarty’s appointment with the SRA had ended. While the investigation into the appellant’s practice had taken place at a time when Mr Hegarty was still acting in his capacity as an adjudicator, there was no evidence that he had had any involvement in the investigation, or that he had even been aware of the case prior to the tribunal hearing.

The court confirmed that the relevant test for apparent bias was that laid down by Lord Hope in Porter v Magill, Weeks v Magill [2002] 2 AC 357 (at paragraph 103): ‘The question is whether the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased’.

The court acknowledged that there were important reasons why a tribunal member should not simultaneously hold an appointment with the SRA as this would involve participation in both the investigatory and decision-making stages of the disciplinary process. However, the court held that the mere fact that the member had previously held such an appointment could not of itself give rise to actual or apparent bias.

The court also held that, while tribunal members have a duty to disclose any personal friendships or close associations with any witnesses, there was no evidence of such relationships in this case. Effectively, there was no duty or requirement for those sitting in a judicial capacity to disclose ‘every previous activity or association that he or she may have had’.

In addition, the court was satisfied that the court proceedings to which the appellant referred were completely unconnected and, having been issued some four months after the tribunal hearing, could not be said to have given rise to bias.

The appellant’s second ground of appeal was that the tribunal had erred when determining whether he had been dishonest. He argued that the tribunal had failed to give due regard to the fact that he had not benefitted financially from the unauthorised use of client money and that the money in question had been repaid without any loss to the client.

The court also rejected this argument. It was satisfied that the two-pronged test for dishonesty - as laid out by Lord Hutton in Twinsectra Limited v Yardley and Others [2002] 2 AC 164 -had been correctly applied. The tribunal had made clear findings of fact and had given full reasons for those findings. While Mr Ighalo’s arguments on appeal were relevant to the Twinsectra test, there were many other significant features and the tribunal had been justified in its decision.

The appeal was, accordingly, dismissed.