The High Court has ordered the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal to rehear a prosecution against two solicitors suspected of dishonesty.
In November 2014 the tribunal had dismissed cases brought by the Solicitors Regulation Authority against five solicitors from Coventry firm Heer Manak, saying the prosecution had been an abuse of process.
The tribunal was not satisfied that any of the five was able to understand the cases they had to meet and ruled a fair trial was not possible.
The decision followed an extraordinary process involving a multi-day hearing and what was described as the most detailed defence case statement ever presented to the tribunal.
The SRA appealed in respect of two respondents, Kulwant Manak and Rajbinder Dhillon, saying the tribunal was wrong in law to strike out their cases.
In Solicitors Regulation Authority v Manak & Anor , Mrs Justice Thirlwall DBE (pictured) was critical of both the SDT and SRA for the respective ways they had handled the case.
But she ruled the cases were adequately pleaded and should now be determined again by a differently constituted tribunal.
‘Having read all the pleadings, transcripts, the submissions, evidence and exhibits I understand the tribunal’s exasperation with much of the poor presentation of the case by the SRA but poor presentation does not equal abuse of process, still less does it justify striking out adequately pleaded allegations of serious misconduct.
‘A number of the problems were resolved through the working of the tribunal process so that it was not unfair to proceed.’
Thirlwall said the tribunal had taken a ‘broad-brush approach’ instead of considering the case against each solicitor. ‘Proper consideration’ of the pleadings would have led tribunal members to conclude the cases against senior partner Manak and solicitor Dhillon were clear and could be proceeded with.
The proceedings were brought in 2013 and involved allegations of dishonest or reckless conduct and connections with a property transaction which bore the ‘hallmarks of fraud’. The allegations were denied.
The tribunal’s decision was handed down in January 2015 and contained 351 paragraphs – reflecting the protracted nature of proceedings.
The tribunal said it had not ‘dissected and analysed’ each of the 12 allegations before it and there was not enough certainty about the case against each respondent.
Thirlwall reserved some criticism for the SRA. She cited a judgment from Lord Justice Jackson in which he prescribed the length and organisation of prosecution statements, adding this should be ‘part of the training manual for those who draft pleadings on behalf of the SRA’.
In respect of the Dhillon allegations, these were ‘adequately, if not elegantly’ pleaded.
But the judge was clear if the respondents really could not understand the case against them they should have raised it in a case management hearing.
Instead the process turned into a ‘myopic focus on the detail’ rather than any consideration of what the case was about.
Thirlwall added: ‘Before concluding that the pleadings were so unclear that the respondents could not understand the case they had to meet it was incumbent upon the tribunal to consider in respect of each respondent what the case alleged against him or her was.
‘The tribunal could have approached this question by transaction, by allegation or both. They did not carry out that exercise.’
A spokesperson for the SDT confirmed a case management hearing for the remitted case will be held in September.
She added: 'The SDT membership values feedback from the High Court on such cases, and endeavours to use those comments to improve its processes.
'It is important to note that out of 116 cases heard by the SDT in 2015, including the Heet Manak proceedings, only eight appeals were lodged.
'Out of those eight appeals, four were dismissed, two were upheld and two remain outstanding. These figures show the true quality of the SDT's decisions.'