Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Allegations of bias as Crown Office fails to prosecute legal aid fraud solicitor

The Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal today bleats for more powers as it uses yet again, the excuse it cannot do anything because Paul Kirk, the solicitor at the centre of the fraud case, had removed his name from the roll of practicing solicitors ...

While the SSDT and the Law Society try to make a meal of alleged 'lack of powers', it is somewhat ironic that SLAB themselves can't even seem to account for the loss of public money in Mr Kirk's billing ...

Quoting the Herald story :

A spokesman for SLAB said they could not put an exact figure on Mr Kirk's frauds but he had paid money back and SLAB were confident there had been no loss to the public purse.

What a surprise, the Scottish Legal Aid Board not in a position to put a figure on legal aid fraud in the case of a solicitor ... seems they feel different in 'other' circumstances ....

The Herald reports :

The Herald reports :

LEGAL AID FRAUD: Top solicitor ripped off thousands

A high-earning solicitor who seemed to be "busy doing nothing" was ripping off legal aid funds by "double charging" and claiming false expenses.

Now the Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal, which found Paul Kirk of Viewpark, Uddingston, Glasgow, guilty of professional misconduct has called for tougher penalties for rogue lawyers.

Mr Kirk, 48, became one of the five highest earners in a league of one-man firms in Scotland after setting up in business on his own.

But an investigation showed he was submitting false accounts and inflated charges - netting him thousands of pounds which he should not have been paid.

In a written judgment issued today the tribunal complained that they could only impose a "slap-on-the-wrist" penalty because Mr Kirk had already taken his name off the Law Society of Scotland's list of practising solicitors before they could take action against him.

The tribunal recently made a similar complaint that former "Ally McDeal" solicitor Angela Baillie, 34, had avoided professional punishment in the same way after she was jailed for smuggling drugs into Barlinnie Prison.

Mr Kirk, a solicitor since December 1981, was a partner in a Glasgow law firm until he set up Paul Kirk and Company in February 2002, working mainly in Hamilton and Glasgow Sheriff Courts.

The following financial year the sums he was charging topped £322,000 and in 2003-2004 he was paid £311,000 by SLAB.

At least 10 per cent tenth of what Mr Kirk was claiming was reckoned to be fraudulent, an investigation showed.

Lawyers doing criminal work for clients eligible for legal aid are paid a fixed fee for minor cases at sheriff court level.

When handling more serious charges they can claim for travel expenses and waiting around in court, as well as billing for preparation time and consultations with clients.

SLAB officials were curious that Mr Kirk seemed to be doing a lot of "time and line" cases and few fixed fee cases.

They also noticed interviews with clients were often said to have lasted more than an hour and Mr Kirk charged for "excessive preparation and perusal times."

The tribunal concluded: "All of which methods of charging were designed to enhance the fee claimed."

The Scottish Legal Aid also found that Mr Kirk was charging for "waiting time" in court when he was working on other cases and double-charging the same expenses for more than one client.

When they seized his paperwork they found that on one day he claimed he was discussing clients' court cases when he was actually meeting SLAB auditors.

The investigation of a sample of about 15 per cent of his case-load between 2002 and 2004 found 30 occasions where he had charged SLAB twice for the same time.

Chartered accountant Ian Middleton, director if audit and compliance with SLAB, explained that solicitors sent in bills one at a time, so it was difficult to check for double charging although new measures had been introduced to toughen up monitoring.

He said Mr Kirk was doing a lot of "time and line" work but not a lot of fixed fee work. "Mr Kirk seemed to be busy doing nothing," said Mr Middleton. "There were concerns within SLAB that the time and line work was being padded out."

Mr Middleton said he didn't think Mr Kirk had simply made mistakes because errors were always in the solicitor's favour.

An investigation concluded there had been "a massive amount of overcharging."

SLAB took their concerns to the Law Society of Scotland, the professional body which regulates solicitors, and they raised an action with the independent Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal.

Mr Kirk - who had earlier claimed to SLAB officials that he had simply made mistakes in his accounts - did not appear or make any answers to the charges.

He was fined the maximum of £10,000 and censured.

The written ruling adds: "The tribunal again wishes to place on record its concern that, as in another recent case involving a former solicitor, it lacks the power to impose on the respondent (Kirk) a penalty which it would regard as appropriate in the circumstances of the case."

The tribunal said Mr Kirk's fraudulent claims "strike at the heart of the obligations of honesty and integrity which are incumbent on every solicitor."

They repeated their call for legislation which would give then power to prevent rogue solicitors ever applying to be re-admitted to the profession.

A spokesman for SLAB said they could not put an exact figure on Mr Kirk's frauds but he had paid money back and SLAB were confident there had been no loss to the public purse.

The matter had also been reported to police but it was understood there would be no criminal prosecution.

Sources suggested the total fiddled by Mr Kirk amounted to some £35,000.

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