A solicitor who miscertified a bill of costs has been fined £20,000 by a disciplinary tribunal, avoiding a harsher penalty because of her reliance on the costs firm advising her.
The conduct of Jagrit Kaur Bamrah led to a major decision by the Court of Appeal in 2018 about misconduct in assessment proceedings.
An unusual factor in Gempride Ltd v Bamrah & Anor was that Ms Bamrah was both the claimant and herself a personal injury solicitor and the firm she ran – Falcon Legal – acted for her for part of her personal injury claim, which settled for £50,000.
In the detailed assessment, the bill of costs was prepared by an unregulated costs draftsman at the now-defunct costs firm Lawlords, and certified by the solicitor even though it claimed hourly rates in excess of those that had been agreed.
The replies to the points of dispute also asserted that before-the-event (BTE) insurance was not available, when in fact it was, had Ms Bamrah been willing to accept the insurer’s terms.
At first instance, Master Leonard in the Senior Courts Costs Office found there had been misconduct in certifying the bill and replies. He made no express finding that Ms Bamrah had been dishonest, although the Court of Appeal noted that he “clearly regarded her conduct as more than ‘an honest mistake’”.
On the first appeal, His Honour Judge Mitchell in Central London County Court reversed the decision, but the Court of Appeal found that the circuit judge erred and it reinstated Master Leonard’s ruling.
In granting permission, Lord Justice Jackson had said Master Leonard’s findings of fact, in particular his rejection of dishonesty, must stand and the appeal court could not go behind them.
Acknowledging that when giving the court’s main ruling, Lord Justice Hickinbottom said that “in my view her conduct was serious even within the parameters of ‘unreasonable and improper’”.
The judge also stressed that solicitors “remain ultimately responsible for the acts and omissions of those to whom they delegate parts of the conduct of litigation, particularly where those to whom such work is delegated are not authorised”.
The ruling led to a Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) investigation and an agreed outcome which has now been approved by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
Ms Bamrah admitted misleading the defendant on the BTE issue; certifying a bill of costs as accurate when she knew, or ought to have known, that it was not because the hourly rate was in excess of that which she (as the client) was obliged to pay; and accepting the offer of £241 per hour from the defendant in circumstances where she knew, or ought to have known, that the offer was based on the inaccurate bill of costs.
She was initially charged with lacking integrity and being dishonest in relation to the first breach, but the SRA ultimately dropped those allegations in light of the master’s finding that she was not dishonest. Ms Bamrah did, however, admit to having acted recklessly.
In ‘non-agreed mitigation, the solicitor said she had been inexperienced in matters of costs at the time and her misconduct “stemmed in large part from her reliance” on the advice of the costs firm, which she claimed had “significantly” let her down.
She also pointed to her otherwise “unblemished” career and the fact that she first reported the matter to the SRA after Master Leonard’s ruling. Ms Bamrah acknowledged the seriousness of her misconduct and said she has taken steps to ensure it could not be repeated.
“She has educated herself to a greater extent in matters of costs… She checks all bills of costs meticulously and does not hesitate to question costs draftsmen about the contents of the bill and any aspect of the process which she does not understand.”
In deciding that a £20,000 fine was appropriate, the agreed outcome said the impact of Ms Bamrah’s actions was reduced by her disclosing the conditional fee agreement and supporting documents to the defendant before a proposed settlement concluded.
While her culpability was “not low”, her reliance on the costs advice meant neither the protection of the public nor the reputation of the profession required her to be suspended or struck off.
Ms Bamrah also agreed to pay costs of £5,000.