A solicitor who described as ‘sheer terror’ the moment he appeared cluelessly in front of the Court of Appeal has been reprimanded by a tribunal.
Afame Kingsley John Offiah admitted to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal that he failed to competently conduct an application from August 2014 for leave to appeal his client’s sentence and confiscation order. This included an admission that he failed to follow procedure, unknowlingly drafted misleading and defective grounds, failed to review the background to the application, and did not withdraw when it should have been obvious the case was misconceived.
But Offiah denied acting dishonestly and giving untruthful and/or misleading answers when questioned about the application later that year before the Court of Appeal Criminal Division.
The tribunal accepted he had not expected to appear before the three senior judges – Mr Justice Cranston, Mr Justice Knowles and vice president of the Court of Appeal Lady Justice Hallett. It was clear Offiah was a ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’ and ‘entirely unprepared’ for a first appearance in the Court of Appeal, and he was found not to have acted dishonestly.
Offiah, who practised on his own account at east London firm JDS Solicitors, was instructed by a client in March 2013 two years after they pleaded guilty to drugs and criminal property charges. Despite an indication from the court about a potential wasted costs order, Offiah lodged an application for leave to appeal, but did not refer to a previous application or various hearings relating to the confiscation orders. The court’s registrar made persistent attempts, without success, to get updates about the appeal, before the firm finally wrote to the Criminal Appeals Office indicating the client would abandon his appeal. Nevertheless, the appeal was not formally withdrawn when Offiah attended the court three days later, and he admitted before the judges the client had paid for a service that was ‘complete and utter rubbish’.
A transcript of the judges' cross-examination showed his explanations were variously described as ‘nonsense’ and ‘incompetence’, and the subsequent judgment stated that errors were ‘so basic and the grounds so defective that we questioned, when we read the papers, whether any qualified lawyer could have been near them’.
Offiah, a solicitor for 19 years, told the tribunal this moment was the ‘most frightening time of his entire career as a lawyer’. Due to fear and anxiety, ‘he did not know his left from his right, he had no papers in front of him, the lordships clearly wanted to know why precious time had been wasted on an appeal which should not have come before that court’. Offiah stated that although he previously used the word catastrophe to describe what happened, ‘the actual situation was much worse’. He had no intention to mislead the court and had apologised, he did not distort facts to improve his position and was ‘wholly unprepared’ to be cross-examined.
The tribunal found his explanations to be plausible and consistent. He had not attempted to mislead anyone and acted due to ‘genuine confusion and error’. Since the hearing, Offiah had received extra training, appointed full-time administrative support for his team and refunded all fees.
The tribunal ordered he be reprimanded and pay £4,000 costs rather than the SRA's claim for £9,458.