Monday, February 27, 2012

PLOT to plunder Legal Aid MILLIONS : Law Society backed company formed by its own legal aid team aimed to siphon fees from Police station duty scheme

slabLaw Society’s own legal aid negotiating team in legal aid plunder job. WHEN things are so bad the Law Society of Scotland decides to silently back a group of lawyers from its own criminal legal aid negotiating team who then go off to form a private company (Esto Law Ltd) with the alleged aim of siphoning off some (or as much as possible) of the ONE HUNDRED & FIFTY FIVE MILLION POUNDS of taxpayers money to be spent this year by the Scottish Government on the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) who make legal aid payments to law firms & solicitors already moaning about cuts to legal aid fees, you just know arguments such as “access to justice”, or what is “in the public interest” take a significant back seat to the pound signs flashing up like an out of control cash register in a lawyer’s eyes.

In fact, not content with backing the private venture to ‘offer new services’ to lawyers in relation to the rather messy Police Station duty scheme, run by SLAB which enables a person who is arrested on suspicion of a criminal offence to consult with a solicitor, either in person or on the telephone whilst in police custody, (something Esto Law wants to tap into for the legal aid money by being an unnecessary go-between) the Law Society went one step further and wrote a report clearing their now former criminal legal aid negotiating team of any impropriety whatsoever, reported earlier, HERE 

Today, as part of a Freedom of Information disclosure supplied to Scottish Law Reporter by one of our journalists, the Scottish Legal Aid Board released Information contained in documents & discussions between SLAB, the Glasgow Bar Association and any Scottish law firms which communicated with SLAB on the subject of Esto Law Ltd and any services/proposed services offered by Esto Law ltd. Surprise !, the meetings which included fleeting visits from SLAB’s very own Chief Executive, Lindsay Montgomery, and other well known figures from the Scottish Legal Aid Board (chuff chuff – Ed) had no notes taken. (Don’t you just love these no-notes-taken-meetings involving tens of millions of pounds of public money. Thoroughly untrustworthy indeed – Ed)

In relation to the FOI request, made in January by one of our journalists, a full copy of which can be read below or downloaded online HERE, the following information was disclosed :

1.How many meetings took place between representatives of SLAB and Directors of Esto Law Ltd? : Two meetings took place between representatives of the Scottish Legal Aid Board and directors of Esto Law Ltd.

2.On what basis were these meetings convened? : The meetings were convened at the request of representatives from Esto Law Ltd to have initial, informal discussions with a view to ensuring that their proposals met the Board’s requirements for the operation of the Police Station Duty scheme, and our requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors. No formal applications for registration had been made at that stage.

We would expect any new private firm proposing to deliver a new service such as that proposed by Esto  to have discussions with us to ensure that their proposals fully met all our requirements. At no stage did we advise that any special arrangements could or would be made for Esto Ltd. No minutes were taken of these meetings.

Who was present from SLAB and Esto Law Ltd in the meetings that took place? The representatives at the two meetings were as follows:

8 November 2011 2pm SLAB Offices, Drumsheugh  Gardens, Edinburgh. Scottish Legal Aid Board: Douglas Haggarty, Head of Legal Services (Criminal and Technical), Linda Laughland, Head of Human Resources, Kingsley Thomas, Manager, Criminal Applications, Alison Craig, Team Leader, Criminal Applications

Esto representatives : Vincent McGovern, Ian Bryce, Ken Dalling, John Scott, John Keenan, Neil Robertson, Stuart Munro

23 November 2011 4pm SLAB Offices, 44 Drumsheugh Gardens Edinburgh, Scottish Legal Aid Board: Lindsay Montgomery, Chief Executive (At start of meeting only and not present for the substantive discussions.), Colin Lancaster;Director of Policy and Development,Douglas Haggarty; Head of Legal Services (Criminal and Technical), Kingsley Thomas; Manager, Criminal Applications.

Esto representatives : Vincent McGovern, Ian Bryce

4.When were the meetings and are there minutes from said meetings?
The dates of the meetings are shown above. No minutes were taken of these meetings, given their informal nature.

5.What assurances were given to the Directors of Esto Law Ltd in relation to it provision of advice and assistance for an agency service for the police station duty scheme, given that in terms of the current duty scheme, solicitors are not allowed to delegate duty, the duty instead passing to the alternative duty agent.

There seems to be a misunderstanding here about the operation of the police station duty scheme. The details of the scheme were published on 25 May 2011. At no point in the scheme is it specified that duty solicitors are not allowed to delegate police attendances, with the duty instead passing to the alternative duty agent. Indeed, we have tried to ensure that the police station duty scheme can be operated as flexibility and reasonably as possible given the circumstances when police station attendances may be required. It was always envisaged that flexible cover arrangements would be used by duty solicitors to ensure that police station attendances could be arranged as quickly as possible  as long as any attendances were made by solicitors who had been accepted on to a police station duty plan.

6.In any of the meetings with the Directors of Esto Law Ltd was it indicated by the Board that the   above restriction was to be withdrawn and that duty solicitors would be entitled to nominate an agency solicitor to attend or give advice on their behalf?

Are any such changes planned or in contemplation in relation to the police duty scheme? If there are when were these plans first mooted and buy whom?

As mentioned above, no such restriction exists within the current interim police station duty scheme.

7.If there are no planned changes to the police station duty scheme, on what basis did the Board indicate to the Directors of Esto Law Ltd that the services that they proposed to supply conformed to the current requirements?

As there is no restriction preventing a duty solicitor delegating their attendance, then the services which were  proposed by Esto Law Ltd appeared to comply with the current scheme.

8. Does the Board accept that it is inappropriate for the Board to engage in meetings and discussion with private venture companies whilst concurrently engaging in negotiations with the same people acting in a representative capacity for the Profession?

At the time of our meetings with Esto Law Ltd, there were no concurrent negotiations with the Law Society, or any other engagement with their negotiating team. It would have been wholly inappropriate for the Board to decline to discuss with any firm of solicitors whether any new proposed services would meet the current legal aid requirements.

9.What steps did the Board take to ensure commercial neutrality in their dealings with the Directors of Esto Law Ltd?

The purpose of the meetings with Esto Law Ltd was to ensure that their proposals met the Board’s requirements for the operation of the Police Station Duty scheme, and our requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors. No special arrangements were requested or discussed with Esto. I am satisfied that the Board representatives acted properly in their dealings with Esto, and would have acted in the same way with any other private firm who requested a meeting to discuss new services.

10. Did the Board agree that Esto Law Ltd could receive calls direct from police stations by passing the call centre? If so, what was the basis and justification for agreement?

The Board did not agree that Esto Law Ltd could receive calls direct from police stations by-passing the Board Solicitor Contact Centre. The Esto representatives did not request this. However, the Board made it clear that an individual solicitor who registered with Esto would need to confirm to us that they had done this and that they wished us to contact Esto on their behalf. It was made clear that police stations would still contact the Board Solicitor Contact Line where suspects require legal advice.

11.The Law Society of Scotland is now instigating a full investigation into the creation of Esto Law Ltd by members of its Legal Aid Negotiating Team. I would be obliged if you would confirm with me that you will similarly launch a full investigation in relation to the dealings between the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Directors of Esto Law Ltd.

The important issue here is that the purpose of the meetings with ESTO Law Ltd was to ensure that the Board’s requirements for the Police Station Duty Scheme and the requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors were not breached. It was made clear to the Esto directors that no   special arrangements would be made for Esto and that we would deal with any other firm wishing to set up new arrangements in the same way. The directors of Esto were at pains to confirm that they would not be seeking any special arrangements and that they wished to ensure compliance with the Board’s requirements.

We also understand that the Law Society of Scotland is conducting an investigation into the creation of Esto Law Ltd. Of course, if we are asked to contribute to that investigation, we will be happy to do so. I see no basis for an investigation to be carried out by the Board. As shown above, we held two meetings with representatives from Esto Law Ltd to discuss the Board’s requirements for the operation of the Police Station Duty scheme, and our requirements for the registration of firms and connected solicitors, and we were also sent background information on their proposed service. In the course of these meetings, and the consideration of their proposals, we discussed matters that we would expect any private concern to discuss with us  before setting up a new service providing publicly funded legal assistance.


John Scott said...

I have read with interest your pieces on Esto Law Limited. In the main they are based on coverage elsewhere of the complaints about Esto, albeit you have added some commentary of your own.
The investigation has confirmed that there was no wrongdoing. Your suspicions to the contrary, and lack of faith in the Society, don't provide any actual evidence of any conflict of interest or the like. All that remains is the allegations which were made against us and they have no substance whatsoever. I am surprised that your approach seems to be to assume guilt. For the avoidance of doubt I will repeat that we did nothing wrong.
Esto was nothing to do with the Law Society, beyond the need for any new firm to comply with Law Society rules for registration, etc. It was a commercial venture involving solicitors from some of the leading criminal legal aid firms in the country. It was conceived in response to our realisation of the need to do something to address the problems of 24 hour police station cover when we also have to cover court commitments and try to make sure that our staff can switch off their mobile phones some weekends.As Esto failed to launch this is a problem which we and every other firm is having to continue wrestling with. Again, I would have thought that you would wish there to be some proper cover in place for police station work.
We were not involved in any ongoing negotiations with SLAB, the Government or anyone else about the police station duty scheme. We had put a lot of work into the discussions about the police station duty scheme, including an attempt to allow the profession to operate it through the Law Society.
After several years of unpaid work on behalf of the profession I resigned from the Legal Aid Team on 18th October 2011.
I confess that my own business has suffered as I have taken a considerable amount of time off from paid work to try to ensure that the public could continue to benefit from the best representation through legal aid.
You refuse to accept the fact that there has been no wrongdoing. You might notice the otherwise deafening silence from those who submitted complaints in December. I don't assume that you are always wrong but, whatever the truth on other occasions, you are wrong on this one.
John Scott

Anonymous said...

John.This stuff from SLAb with the unrecorded meetings sounds fishy plus there's you who keep going on about the Law Society finding no wrongdoing when you know yourself nothing happens in the system unless the Law Society backs it.Trying to say otherwise is disingenuous.
If the defence secretary and four generals resign tomorrow to form their own arms company and take a few billion in contracts I assume the rest of the country is okay with this?I don't think so.
How many solicitors or law firms did you actually consult before starting up Esto Law?
Names & numbers please.If there's no wrongdoing there's nothing/no need to hide,or hide behind the Society's skirts.

Anonymous said...

Lest we forget 'Law Society rules for registration, etc' include the requirement that each and every solicitor operating in Scotland is required to obtain Professional Indemnity Insurance via the Law Society's chosen insurance provider - and no other - namely, the disgraced insurance company

The multi-million dollar fine Marsh was required to pay - at the last count some $1.2 BILLION DOLLARS - for fraudulent business practises, the forced sacking of their then Chairman and the
prosecution of senior executive members of that discredied business on CRIMINAL CHARGES are all matters of record.

The current Chairman Elect is - no surprise - former Tory Cabinet member and SCOTTISH MP Ian Lang.

Anonymous said...

aye nothing like liwyers and money its like a bad train wreck in this case its PUBLIC MONEY

correct me if I am wrong the Freedom of Information document says the Legal Aid Board met with these Esto liwyers twice so how can it be no meeting took place?

Lindsay Montgomery said lawyers cant count.Its in the Scotsman.Can someone not count the numbers of meetings?

Mr Scott says the Law Society of Scotland finds there is nothing wrong going on.Oh well we can all believe the Law Society without any reservation.NOT.

John Scott said...

Sorry for the delay in replying.
I am afraid that it is wrong to say that the Law Society needs to back any venture like this. It needs to be informed about it but its backing is not required. Esto Law was a private commercial enterprise. It originated in the realisation on the part of the firms involved that specific arrangements would be needed in order to ensure proper cover for our clients who are to be interviewed in police stations.
When we looked at what we were setting up we thought that other firms needed something similar. We spoke to several solicitors in other firms - I am afraid that I am not going to name them, especially because of the anatagonism which Esto provoked - and they were extremely positive about such a service.
It should be emphasised that no firm had to sign up for the service we intended to offer. They could make their own arrangements or try to set up something similar - all the necessary information was public at least partly because of the efforts of my colleagues and I when involved ith the Criminal Legal Aid Negotiating Team.
In the aftermath of the Cadder decision and the emergency legislation which followed it I had real concerns that some suspects were not being properly catered for and fully advised. I helped to draft the only guidance for solicitors in this area -
We would have made claims for legal aid but no more money would have been spent than if the suspect's own solicitor had attended. We intended to charge a service fee which would have been payable by the firms who signed up. It would not therefore have involved any public funds in that respect. Solicitors would have paid to ensure a proper service for their clients while allowing them some quality of life.