Judge slams Soophia Khan’s ‘defiance of her regulator’
A prominent human rights lawyer has been jailed for contempt of court after breaching a High Court order to hand over documents to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
Mr Justice Leech found that Soophia Khan had deliberately failed to comply despite knowing the potential consequences and, as a solicitor, should have known better.
He sentenced Khan to six months, although she can get out earlier if she starts cooperating with the SRA’s investigation into her practice.
Khan, 41, is a human rights lawyer whose practice includes actions against the police. As recently as October, she was on Sky News talking about policing issues. She was formerly chair of the Law Society’s civil justice committee and a member of the SRA’s equality and diversity committee.
In August last year, the SRA decided to intervene in Khan’s firm, saying that there was “reason to suspect dishonesty in connection with the Firm’s business”. It ordered her to hand over documents to appointed agents from Gordons LLP.
A team from Gordons arranged to attend Khan’s offices in Leicester and Wimbledon, but “found no sign of Ms Khan”. The spurned regulator turned to the High Court, securing an order for “delivery up of documents” backed by power of search and seizure.
When Gordons turned up with a locksmith to enforce the order, they “found that the office had been cleared” except for empty lever arch files.
The SRA applied to have Khan jailed for contempt of court; she applied to have the order set aside, on the basis that Sophie Khan & Co was no longer in business and she instead practised as Just for Public Limited.
Khan didn’t turn up to a contempt of court hearing in November, saying she needed urgent medical attention. Mr Justice Fancourt “issued a bench warrant for Ms Khan’s immediate arrest” — leading to headlines about her going “on the run”.
The warrant seems to have the desired effect of forcing Khan to turn up to court. Mr Justice Leech heard the contempt proceedings on 17 December.
Giving judgment yesterday, Leech said that Khan “deliberately failed to comply with the orders knowing that she might be held in contempt of court as a consequence”. Her failure to comply was “not only an attack on the administration of justice… but also defiance of her regulator”.
As a solicitor, Leech held, Khan “should be held to a higher standard than an unqualified defendant”. He found that there was mitigation, including a serious physical injury and medical evidence of mental health issues: “This cannot excuse Ms Khan’s conduct but it goes some way to explain why she adopted such a wrong-headed attitude to the intervention and to the subsequent court orders”.
The judge nevertheless found that the legal test for jailing someone for contempt — where there is “serious, contumacious flouting” of court orders — was met. He sentenced Khan to six months, but with the potential for release after six weeks if she cooperates with the SRA as ordered.
Leech refused to strike Khan off the roll of solicitors immediately, saying that the SRA should take the case to a disciplinary tribunal as normal.
The contempt decision is open to appeal.