StaRs blog: The new ‘freelance’ solicitor: practical aspects and our predictions
At the end of last year, Luftar Rahman, former mayor of London’s Tower Hamlets borough, was struck off the roll by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
In 2015 Rahman was found guilty of illegal and corrupt practices by an election court, which included making false statements, bribery and undue influence. The election court ruling meant that the Tower Hamlets 2014 mayoral election had had to be re-run and Rahman was disqualified from standing as a candidate until 2020.
Although Rahman did not face a criminal prosecution, after the election court ruling the SRA successfully pursued allegations that he failed to uphold the rule of law and administration of justice, failed to act with integrity and failed to behave in a way that maintains trust in the profession.
Rahman had practised as a solicitor for 20 years before becoming mayor in 2010. In addition to being struck off, he was also ordered to pay the SRA’s costs of £86,400.
Whilst it is clearly right that the profession needs reminding that conduct outside of legal practice can have grave consequences for registration; does the regulatory approach to these issues reflect the views of the public and the profession? This is one of questions that the SRA sought to explore in its consultation A Question of Trust which it reported on last year.
Included in that consultation were a number of different hypothetical private life scenarios and the SRA sought views from solicitors and non-solicitors as to their seriousness. Interestingly, the results for these scenarios were not as conclusive as other questions surrounding work practice. Whilst there was a broad consensus for some scenarios there were mixed responses for some other scenarios. For example, solicitors deemed false expense claims in a voluntary role as more serious than non-solicitors, whilst non-solicitors treated the possession of cocaine and dangerous driving more seriously than solicitors. I am sure the latter scores say nothing about what solicitors get up to outside of work.
A review of recent decisions by the SDT confirms that serious conduct outside of legal practice is regularly taken up by the SRA, but it tends to be when solicitors have been convicted of criminal offences:
The cases listed above seem to be uncontroversial given the nature of the convictions. Although being struck off seems to be the most likely outcome for these convictions, any sanction imposed by the SDT will depend on the nature of the offence as each case is dealt with differently according to the aggravating and mitigating features.
Those in the profession may be reassured to know that a strike off is not always the outcome for convictions, albeit that the SRA are not shy in appealing SDT sanctions given for conduct in private life which they feel are unduly lenient. In SRA v Kadurugamuwa  EWHC 2245 (Admin) the SRA appealed the SDT’s decision to fine and place conditions on a solicitor who was convicted of a money laundering offence and given a suspended sentence. In the criminal proceedings, the solicitor had accepted that she suspected the funds were criminal property and that the relevant transfer of money was not made until after she had been arrested and interviewed by the police. Whilst the SDT found that the solicitor was naïve and had acted without integrity in turning a blind eye, they also noted that she was not acting as a solicitor at the relevant time and there was no personal gain. The money was not client money and therefore there was no breach of accounting rules or any allegations of dishonesty.
The SRA argued given that the solicitor’s lack of integrity, the principles in Bolton v Law Society  1 W.L.R 512 required that she be struck off or at least suspended to protect reputation of the profession and for deterrence. The High Court agreed that the sanction was lenient and that it thought suspension would have been more appropriate. However, with some hesitation the High Court dismissed the SRA’s appeal because the decision was not wrong in law.
When reading the Law Gazette, it is rare for me to be surprised that regulatory action has been taken for conduct unconnected with legal practice. This could suggest that the SRA are taking a sensible approach when it comes to disciplining conduct in a professional’s private life. Indeed the SRA’s conclusion following its consultation was that it was taking the right approach by investigating the serious cases concerning conduct outside of legal practice.
As conduct in one’s private life can have serious career consequences, lawyers should obviously be mindful of this and avoid doing anything which reflects badly on them as a professional. This includes comments made on social media, but that will be the subject of a separate blog. Whilst some of the most recent conviction cases have resulted in strike offs, the Kadurugamuwa case will be of reassurance to practitioners who face defending an allegation that concerns their private life. A common reaction to being notified of an SRA investigation is to worry that a strike off is on the cards but it is worth taking advice to advance the best mitigation to try and avoid that outcome.
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