Tuesday, March 24, 2009

No criminal charges as 115 lawyers ‘repay’ £1.6 million to Legal Aid Board

Today’s annual report from the Scottish Legal Aid Board shows an increasing trend among legal professionals – defrauding the legal aid board but not getting away with it as much as before …

Anyway, out of 115 (we hear more – Ed) lawyers repaying at least £1.6 million (no, much more ! – Ed) one would have though the odd criminal charge or two may have been made against the offending solicitor .. but no, as Peter Cherbi’s “Diary of Injustice in Scotland” law blog reports HERE

You can read the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s annual report for 2007-8 here : Annual Report 2007 - 2008 - in pdf format

You can find out which legal firms, advocates & solicitor advocates received the money here : Legal Aid paid to firms of solicitors and Legal Aid paid to Advocates and Legal Aid paid to Solicitor Advocates

The Scotsman reports :

Lawyers repay £1.6 million in crackdown on legal aid

Published Date: 24 March 2009
By Michael Howie

LAWYERS in Scotland have been forced to repay £1.6 million in wrongly claimed legal aid over the past six years.

An investigation by The Scotsman reveals that the number of solicitors and legal firms investigated for apparent legal aid irregularities has increased by 50 per cent in that time.

In 2007-8 alone, 115 individual solicitors and firms were forcedto pay back legal aid.

Much of the money repaid to the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) that year came from the widow of James Muir.

He conned the body out of £1.8 million by embellishing scores of child abuse cases to claim extra money. The solicitor took his life in 2005.

A handful of the cases have been reported to the Law Society of Scotland and the Crown Office for alleged fraud.

However, it is understood that no solicitor has ever been convicted in a criminal court of defrauding the legal aid board.

The high number of investigations and repayments reflects a drive by SLAB to clean up the distribution of legal aid, which last year cost taxpayers some £155 million – an increase of 3 per cent on the previous year.

The legal aid board says it has "focused" its efforts to rein in falsely claimed funds in recent years. With fraud notoriously difficult to prove, it is often not known whether the false claims were criminal, but experts insist in many cases they will be honest mistakes.

Philip Yelland, director of standards at the Law Society of Scotland, said the "vast majority" of solicitors adhered to high professional standards.

"Any matters referred to us by SLAB follow the society's procedures for dealing with complaints.

"We have a robust investigation process which can lead to the society considering disciplinary action, which may involve prosecution before the independent Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal.

"The tribunal, which has different powers to those of the courts, can impose various sanctions from a censure to striking a solicitor from the roll, banning them from practice."

Two solicitors in recent years have been prosecuted by the tribunal.

Paul Kirk's firm was prosecuted for submitting false accounts and inflated charges – netting him thousands of pounds of legal aid which he should not have been paid. The Lanarkshire solicitor was fined £10,000 in 2007.

Meanwhile, Meredith Graham Sykes was fined £2,500 the same year for trying to obtain payment from the board "by misrepresentation".

Labour's justice spokesman, Richard Baker, said the Scottish Legal Aid Board needed to "get a grip" on the issue to ensure all monies paid were claimed properly.

"The SLAB budget has increased greatly over the years and to ensure access to justice for as many as possible, it's vital that the board ensures absolute accountability and transparency."

Robert Brown, Lib Dem justice spokesman, said: "It's absolutely vital that the Scottish Legal Aid Board is as rigorous as possible in these matters and that, where appropriate, cases are reported for prosecution."

Bill Aitken, for the Conservatives, added: "Bearing in mind that the bulk of the money involved has come from one individual, it seems that Scotland's lawyers can claim to have a reasonably clean bill of health.

"Some of them, however, do have to take more care in submitting accounts as, leaving aside the question of criminality or fraud, there are still cases where the claims submitted do not tie up and this costs a fair amount to investigate."

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