"Until we meet again, and the case is sol-ved"
The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has ordered that the SRA pay interim costs of £40k for "improperly and unreasonably" prosecuting a solicitor.
The SRA brought an action against Jamil Ahmud, a partner at Bloomsbury Law, alleging that he had dishonestly sought to recover more costs in litigation than he was entitled to. The case was based on the report of a costs draftsman, which has now been found to be inaccurate.
The regulator started its investigation in 2016, but the tribunal noted "no-one had thought to interview" the key client witness until January 2020, some four years later. In July 2020 the SRA withdrew the action conceding there was no case to answer, in light of the client interview.
The tribunal also criticised the SRA for reopening the case three years ago. In October 2016, the SRA informed Ahmud that the investigation was closed. But the regulator decided to revive the matter in February 2017, after the costs draftsman complained, despite there being a lack of any "fresh evidence". The tribunal said it was "lamentable" that the SRA failed to inform Ahmud that they were reopening the case, and waited for a year to tell him.
The case was "infected from the outset with a regrettable injudicious and peremptory lack of professional assiduousness," said the tribunal.
It is unusual for a costs order to be made against the SRA for bringing a prosecution. But the tribunal denied that its decision would have a "chilling effect", saying, "on the contrary, it may make it more likely that prosecutions would be undertaken and pursued in a more diligent manner than this one had."
“It is now clear that these baseless allegations should never have been pursued against me," Ahmud told RollOnFriday. "Substantial costs have been incurred in defending these proceedings only for them to be withdrawn at the eleventh hour. The SRA’s ‘lack of diligence and transparency’ in this case has wasted the time of both the SDT and myself, as well as squandering the profession’s money."
The tribunal ordered the SRA to pay £40,000 in interim costs, and directed that Ahmud's total claim of £192,000 be assessed by a costs judge. However, the tribunal said it did not have jurisdiction to award costs on an indemnity basis.
Ahmud will continue the battle, as he has filed an appeal in the High Court for indemnity costs. "I see no reason why a solicitor who incurs substantial costs in the defence of unreasonable and improper proceedings brought by the SRA in the Tribunal should be left out of pocket, which is the practical result where costs are assessed on the standard basis," he told RollOnFriday.
An SRA spokesman said: “We have read the SDT’s judgment and are considering next steps.”
The tribunal's decision can be seen here.