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Revelations show Legal Aid paid to ‘crooked lawyers’ with criminal convictions as Law Society fears grow over ‘regulatory disclosure’

28 Sep

SLABLegal Aid has been paid to solicitors with criminal records & poor complaints histories. Sources close to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission have today claimed that lawyers in Scotland who have criminal convictions for everything from driving offences to embezzlement, and even longer client complaints records on everything from fraud to habitual negligence, have, without any checks on their status, received public funding from the Scottish Legal Aid Board to defend accused persons, criminals and engage in copious amounts of expensive civil legal aid work usually resulting in unnecessarily long drawn out court cases.

Law Society of ScotlandThe Law Society of Scotland is not obliged to inform clients or the Scottish Legal Aid Board of solicitors criminal records. At the root of the problem seems to be the Law Society of Scotland’s exemption to Freedom of Information legislation, which I have covered before HERE. However, and quite astonishingly, according to sources at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, there is no official requirement on the Law Society of Scotland or even the SLCC itself to inform the publicly funded Scottish Legal Aid Board that solicitors, paralegals and other workers employed in the legal profession who have their fees paid for by legal aid funds, have criminal records or are currently charged with criminal offences or have poor complaints records in their service & conduct towards clients.

A legal insider today claimed the lack of any statutory agreements between the legal profession and the taxpayer funded Scottish Legal Aid Board was no accident. He said : “It has never been in the legal profession’s best interests to disclose to anyone the fact there are a growing number of its members and employees who have been convicted of criminal offences. It should therefore be of little surprise to the public that no requirements for disclosure to bodies such as the Legal Aid Board exist, due to the fact the Law Society has continually resisted legislation or agreements which would require it to disclose any information on its members.”

He continued : “This issue doesn’t just relate to criminal convictions. The number and types of complaints against solicitors and their respective law firms should quite properly be disclosed to the Legal Aid board as it may be the case that a particular solicitor who is currently under investigation for financial irregularities as a result of client complaints, is perversely receiving vast amounts of legal aid funding to continue what he is doing. That just has to be wrong.”

A senior solicitor, asked for comment said : “The Law Society seems to feel if such information was obliged to be disclosed to the Legal Aid Board, those affected solicitors and their legal firms would, quite rightly in my view, be excluded from receiving legal aid funding.

He continued : “Client applications for civil legal aid contain a wide variety of questions, to ensure a claim is justified. If the client wilfully conceals information, they may be subject to a criminal prosecution. It therefore seems justifiable to ask solicitors more about themselves before legal aid is handed over enabling them to represent their client. For instance, it may be the client has a good case but a bad solicitor. Perhaps introducing checks on solicitors backgrounds would improve services offered to clients and increase the chances of success in litigation funded by legal aid.”

Insiders at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, appalled at the situation, have today revealed there are secret moves currently underway to ‘improve’ information disclosure on ‘crooked lawyers’ to organisations such as the Scottish Legal Aid Board, which is a start in the right direction. However, one example being referred to in the secret discussions, as a basis for increased disclosure from the Law Society to statutory bodies, being the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between the Law Society and the troubled Financial Services Authority, has produced little results over the many years of its existence.

A financial expert claimed the Memorandum of Understanding which exists between the Financial Services Agency and the Law Society of Scotland has not succeeded in its desired effect. She said : “Compared with the numbers of media reports we see on lawyers engaged in financial frauds and the sheer numbers of complaints made to the Law Society of Scotland by disgruntled clients, the numbers of solicitors brought to the FSA’s attention under the Memorandum of Understanding are very few, raising questions about the Law Society’s honesty.”

She continued : “To be effective, I would recommend a legislative approach to oblige the Law Society and SLCC to disclose such information directly because MOU’s basically don’t work and have too many get-out clauses.”

FSAThe Financial Services Authority reports only one matter referred from the Law Society of Scotland. A Freedom of Information request made to the Financial Services Agency seems to support the view the Law Society is not maintaining its side of the agreement, as the number of reported cases of complaints containing allegations of financial irregularities involving Scottish solicitors do not match those reported by the Law Society to the FSA in London. The FSA disclosed : “The Law Society of Scotland has not reported any solicitors to the FSA within the last 24 months, but it has informed the FSA of one matter regarded as a material concern within the same period.”

The FSA went onto explain : “The Society is classified as a Designated Professional Body (“DPB”) and this enables it to regulate licensed firms for certain financial services business that arises out of legal work. The FSA maintains an oversight role, and much of the MoU sets out the framework of co-operation in relation to this regime. The other principal focus of the MoU relates to those member firms directly authorised by the FSA. As a consequence not all practising solicitors or the law firms they work for fall within the scope of the MoU. For example the FSA would not generally expect to be notified of concerns relating to a solicitor working in a firm that was neither licensed under the Society’s DPB regime nor directly authorised by the FSA.”

You can download a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Law Society of Scotland and the Financial Services Agency here : MoU between Financial Services Authority & Law Society of Scotland. Clearly, there are too many escape clauses in this ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between the Law Society of Scotland and the Financial Services Authority for the agreement to be of any use in terms of consumer protection. Legislation, as those in the know suggest, is therefore certainly the way to go to ensure a full regulatory disclosure including of course, the criminal records of those who are employed in the legal profession – from paralegals to solicitors themselves.

COPFSScotland’s Crown Office are also left out of the loop on disclosures about ‘crooked lawyers’. Curiously, a similar ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between the Law Society of Scotland and the Crown Office, over the notification of criminal activity which is reported to them by clients of rogue solicitors, or information discovered by the Society during the course of their own investigations, has also produced little by way of productive disclosure, indicating to many the Law Society is resistant to disclose any negative information on its members.

The Scottish Government’s Justice Department was asked for reaction on the revelations but had not responded by the publication of this article. However, a source close to the Law Society of Scotland said it would be “very angry” if information relating to solicitors criminal records or complaints investigations fell into the public domain but offered no reply when asked why consumers should not be allowed to judge if such information may affect their choice of legal representative.

Nevertheless, readers can help compile a register of solicitors in Scotland who have criminal convictions or poor client complaint records, simply by making a comment on this article, informing the name of the solicitor or law firm concerned, and adding any appropriate information which will then be passed onto consumer campaign groups for verification and inclusion in an appropriate register to be made publicly available to all consumers which may help & better inform their choice of legal representative in Scotland.

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