Scottish Legal Aid Board under the spotlight as solicitor accused of excessive legal aid claims quietly removed from legal aid register. THE SCOTTISH LEGAL AID BOARD (SLAB) & the Law Society of Scotland are facing calls for an inquiry into the way they both deal with alleged cases of legal aid claims abuse after it was revealed in a national newspaper a solicitor who raked in over £600,000 in legal aid claims over two years was allowed to quietly remove himself from the legal aid register after a deal had been struck between his lawyer and the legal aid board to avoid any further proceedings, even though SLAB had made a detailed complaint to the Law Society of Scotland in 2006, a complaint which took the law complaints self regulator a whopping FOUR YEARS to investigate !
Solicitor Niels S Lockhart was the subject of a Press Release by the Legal Aid Board in mid December 2010, in which SLAB reported Mr Lockhart withdrew voluntarily form the Legal Aid register.
The Legal Aid Board’s Press Release Solicitor withdraws from publicly funded legal assistance work (pdf) stated : “The Scottish Legal Aid Board announced today that it has accepted the voluntary and irrevocable withdrawal by the firm of N S Lockhart Solicitors, 71 King Street, Kilmarnock, KA1 1PT and its sole partner Niels S Lockhart from the provision of all forms of legal assistance; following an investigation into the firm’s practices by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.”
“Mr Lockhart will no longer provide publicly funded legal assistance or have any involvement in any capacity as an agent or working for any other firm or solicitor in any matter which involves publicly funded legal assistance. The withdrawal follows an investigation of the firm carried out by the Board and a subsequent complaint to the Law Society of Scotland.”
“The Law Society Reporter sent its report to the Law Society in July 2010. This confirmed the concerns raised by the Board, about practices Mr Lockhart had adopted in the provision of legal assistance, which had resulted in the submission of many accounts which were not consistent with the principle of working with “due regard to economy” and were not acceptable practices for a solicitor undertaking civil legal assistance.The Law Society can determine whether the conduct of a solicitor provides good reason for them to be excluded from providing legal assistance, in accordance with section 31 of the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986.”
“Mr Lockhart acknowledges that the investigation carried out by the Board and subsequent report to the Society raised continued concerns about his practices. As a result of Mr Lockhart’s permanent and binding withdrawal from legal aid, the Scottish Legal Aid Board has withdrawn its complaint to the Law Society.”
However, significant omissions have been punched in the Press Release issued by the Legal Aid Board after a secret report (since quoted in the media) emerged on SLAB’s investigation & dealings with the Law Society of Scotland & the Legal Defence Union concerning Mr Lockhart, with strong indications emerging the public were misled by the terms of the Legal Aid Board’s Press Release over the extent of the SLAB investigation into Mr Lockhart and his subsequent resignation from the legal aid register.
A senior official from one of Scotland’s consumer organisations spoke with concern on the issue, saying : “In the light of significant omissions in the Legal Aid Board’s public account of Mr Lockhart’s resignation from the register, I feel there must be a full investigation of the way in which SLAB investigates and deals with those accused of legal aid irregularities in the light of the board’s dealings with the Law Society & the LDU.”
He continued : “On the face of evidence now available in the public domain it appears that solicitors caught up in questionable claims have escaped any moves by regulators or even the authorities to punish them or force repayment of inflated or fraudulently claimed public funds while ordinary members of the public who are claimants have faced prosecution and at times unfair treatment over similar matters, including the denial of legal aid in cases particularly involving challenges against institutions, public services, and of course, the legal profession itself.”
The Sunday Mail newspaper has since reported on the case (article below), and a further report including a copy of the actual secret Scottish Legal Aid Board investigation and their statement on its contents along with questions put to the board over their conduct will be featured in an upcoming report on Diary of Injustice later this week.
The Sunday Mail’s report follows :
Mar 27 2011 Russell Findlay, Sunday Mail
LEGAL AID watchdogs have accused a solicitor who took £600,000 of taxpayers’ money in two years of deliberately ramping up his claims.
Niels Lockhart, 60, who runs a one-man firm in Kilmarnock, raked in £280,200 in 2004 then £321,400 the following year. After he ignored a warning to curb his claims, the Scottish Legal Aid Board investigated before a probe team concluded that his applications were a systematic attempt to create extra fees. But despite deciding that he routinely made “unnecessary and excessive” claims, SLAB did not call in police. They referred Lockhart to the Law Society who also decided no fraud had taken place.
The secret SLAB dossier, obtained through freedom of information laws, said: “Lockhart routinely makes consecutive grants of advice and assistance to the same clients for what appear to be similar matters submitted under a different guise. In the board’s view, the ranges of actions taken by Lockhart towards achieving those payments are not those appropriate to a competent and reputable solicitor.
“He arranges for, or permits, his clients to attend his office on numerous occasions for excessive, unnecessary and often irrelevant meetings.
“In the main, these do not appear to have advantages for their further welfare or advance their case but merely act as a mechanism for the firm to exploit the Legal Aid fund by charging for these unnecessary and unproductive meetings.”
The audit discovered Lockhart’s firm was granted 392 “advice and assistance” applications for clients considering civil legal actions over 10 months in 2004 – more than double the number granted to the firm making the second highest number of similar applications.
The report stated: “The analysis revealed persistent patterns of excessive client attendances, the vast majority of which are irrelevant, unnecessary and conducted without due regard to economy.
“This appears to the board to be a deliberate scheme by Lockhart to make consecutive grants of advice and assistance on behalf of the same client for the same matter for personal gain.”
Slab officials warned Lockhart about his claims in April 2005 but he “continued to show contempt for the board’s serious concerns regarding his practices that were discussed at that meeting”.
That prompted SLAB to send their damning 13-page report to legal regulator the Law Society of Scotland in June 2006. Yet the Law Society did not report SLAB’s concerns to police or refer him to the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal. It took them another four years to even agree Lockhart should be banned from legal aid.
Last October, Lockhart’s lawyer James McCann struck a deal with SLAB which allowed Lockhart to agree to quit legal aid voluntarily. He continues to do other legal work.
A slab spokesman said: “The matter was not one of fraud and, therefore, not a criminal matter. A Law Society spokeswoman said: “Our powers in this situation relate to considering the solicitor’s conduct. It is not for the society to determine whether there has been fraud.”
Married dad-of-two Lockhart, from Ayr, said: “There was no suggestion of any dishonesty. I voluntarily removed myself. I was going to withdraw anyway. Where did you get this report?”