Future of top Nottingham lawyer on the line as tribunal kicks off

Ash Bhatia

The future of one of Nottingham’s best-known legal professionals will be decided this week after a Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal kicked off on Monday (March 27).

Scheduled to last five days, the tribunal will see Ash Bhatia up against the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

The move comes almost four years after Bhatia, managing director of Bhatia Best – one of Nottingham’s biggest law firms, was found at an employment tribunal to have wrongly accused Elaina Brown, once a paralegal at his practice, of benefit fraud.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal kicked off on Monday morning in a tense atmosphere. If the hearing finds against him, Bhatia could face serious charges of professional misconduct.

The 2019 employment tribunal found that Bhatia was wrong to believe that Brown was guilty of benefit fraud, describing it as “neither a reasonable belief nor an honest belief” and that she had been the victim of pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Brown had been a paralegal in the family law department between July 2016 and August 2017. The tribunal heard that she found out she was pregnant with her fifth child and that she told the company the next month

The 2019 tribunal also heard that Brown had a difficult pregnancy and her health deteriorated, meaning she had absences from work.

Brown had a check-up at the hospital on 7 August 2017 which overran, meaning Matthew Best, a director of Bhatia Best, had to take a client meeting on her behalf. This led to an email exchange later that day in which Bhatia voice concerns that the pregnancy might impact on her reliability at work.

The day after, Bhatia and Brown had a meeting. This was followed by Bhatia calling the Deparment for Work and Pensions’ fraud hotline to clarify whether his employee was using her married name or the name of ‘Brown’ with regards to credits she was claiming.

In a letter to Brown, Bhatia Best said she had been dismissed for “welfare benefit fraud”.

Bhatia added: “You have made a false declaration and/or failed to report a change in your circumstances.” He said this was a criminal offence.

However, the judge said the 2019 tribunal didn’t find Bhatia’s belief that Brown had committed a criminal offence was credible.

The judge added that as an experienced solicitor in criminal law “he would be well aware that tax credits are not dealt with by the DWP but by HMRC. He must therefore have realised that he was speaking to the wrong administrative body”.

In his defence, Bhatia said: “In the absence of an explanation from Elaina I believed the DWP. The tribunal said I was hasty and should have believed Elaina.”

Bhatia himself is due to give evidence to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal later this week. His representative at the hearing said that Bhatia was “keen to get the investigation finished” and that it was “him and his side who are interested in getting to the truth”. He added that the proceedings had come at “massive expense” to Bhatia and it would it be “almost more than he could bear” if the tribunal was adjourned again.

The hearing is due to end on Friday afternoon, at the latest.

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