Sunday, March 29, 2009

Solicitors may have known of client's false 'slopping-out' claims

It has emerged that lawyers who represented prisoner clients making claims for ‘slopping out’ may have been in on deals where prisoners were using identity fraud to falsely claim their human rights had been breached over having to use portable toilets in Scottish jails.

The Sunday Herald reports that over £2.9 million had been paid to 1373 prisoners so far before the problem was identified … (so a few audits of legal firms should be in the offing ? – Ed)

The Sunday Herald reports :

Bogus slopping-out claims may have cost six-figure sum

By Tom Gordon

Scottish Prison Service report highlights risk of identity fraud by inmates

HUNDREDS OF thousands of pounds in public money may have been paid to bogus slopping-out claimants because the prison service failed to check who was getting the compensation, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

An internal audit report by the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) admits that for years there were "no definitive formal checks to confirm the identity of each claimant", resulting in an "increased risk of identity fraud".

By the time the problem was identified last year, £2.9 million had been paid to 1373 prisoners who claimed their human rights had been breached by having to use a portable toilet in their cell. The average pay-out was around £2100.

The report also reveals the prison service "considerably underestimated" the number of claims it would face, then failed to assign enough staff to process them.

The SPS was last night unable to say if had fallen victim to fraud, but claimed it was "pretty confident" that pay-outs were valid.

Bill Aitken, the Tory justice spokesman, said it was an "extraordinary" oversight. "Hopefully no money was given to even less deserving cases than those who made legitimate claims, but with the type of person with whom they were dealing, many of whom have convictions for dishonesty, it would seem obvious to check their identity."

The audit report, titled Review of the Administration Scheme For Slopping Out Claims, was released to the Sunday Herald under freedom of information.

Based on a review of "systems, procedures and controls" between April and June last year, it found a "reasonable level of assurance" that the scheme was operating efficiently. However, this was one level below "substantial assurance", and meant avoidable "weaknesses" were present, namely a lack of identity checks, but also the "volume of claims and current staffing levels".

On the latter, it said that although claims were "subject to rigorous administration checks to confirm their legitimacy", the volume was such that a "dedicated team should have been formed to process the claims."

Resources were "inadequate given the volume of claims being handled and the levels of expenditure involved", leading to "additional pressures on staff" and "an increased risk that claims will not be processed timeously".

The claims began in 2004 when Robert Napier won a landmark court case after being forced to slop out at Barlinnie. The practice was deemed a breach of his human rights. His £2450 compensation award led to a flood of similar cases.

In Scotland claims could be backdated to 2001, raising the prospect of taxpayers having to pay £67m in compensation.

However, earlier this month it was announced that legislation would be hurried through Westminster to amend the Scotland Act and create a one-year time-bar by summer, limiting the claims bill to around £17m.

The SPS said that since the audit a dedicated team had been set up to handle claims, and had now gathered more information on claimants. However, it had not checked the validity of past claims, and could not guarantee that it had not been a victim of fraud.

A spokesman said: "No evidence exists to suggest that any fraudulent claim has been paid.

"Nevertheless, we are confident that we now have processes in place to mitigate the risk."

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