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One law for lawyers : Secret Report reveals Legal Aid Board, Law Society & Legal Defence Union ‘cosy relationship’ in Lockhart ‘excessive claims’ case

08 Apr

Lawyer pocketed 600K Legal Aid in Two Years Sunday Mail March 27 2011Legal Aid Chiefs accused lawyer Niels Lockhart of excessive claims yet no prosecution or repayment took place. A SECRET REPORT by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) into “excessive” claims for legal aid made by Kilmarnock based solicitor Niels S Lockhart who raked in over £600,000 in legal aid claims over two years can now be published, revealing the full extent of SLAB’s accusations against the sole practitioner, the FOUR YEAR WAIT for the Law Society of Scotland to rule on the case and the intervention of the Legal Defence Union who brokered a deal allowing Mr Lockhart to walk away from all accusations over his claims for legal aid.

On 5 June 2005 the Scottish Legal Aid Board sent a report to the Law Society of Scotland in terms of S32 of the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986 against the sole practitioner firm of Niels S Lockhart, 71 King Street, Kilmarnock. The secret report, obtained under Freedom of Information laws, can be downloaded here : SCOTTISH LEGAL AID BOARD S31 COMPLAINT REPORT TO THE LAW SOCIETY OF SCOTLAND : NIELS S LOCKHART (pdf)

The Legal Aid Board’s report outlined a number of issues that had been identified during the review of case files & accounts which raised concern about Mr Lockhart’s conduct and which fell to be considered as a breach of either Regulation 31 (3) (a) & (b), relating to his conduct when acting or selected to act for persons to whom legal aid or advice and assistance is made available, and his professional conduct generally. These issues illustrated the repetitious nature of Mr Lockhart’s failure to charge fees “actually, necessarily and reasonable incurred, due regard being bad to economy”

The heads of complaint submitted by the Scottish Legal Aid Board to the Law Society of Scotland were :

(1) Excessive attendances, (2) Lack of Progress, (3) Splitting/Repeating Subject Matters, (4) Inappropriate Requests for Increases in Authorised Expenditure, (5) Matters resubmitted under a different guise, (6) Standard Attendance Times, (7) Attendances for Matters Not Related to the Subject Matter of the Case, (8) Unreasonable Charges, (9) Double Charging for Correspondence, (10) Account entries not supported by Client Files, (11) Attempt to Circumvent Statutory Payment Procedure for Property Recovered or Preserved, (12) Continued Failure to act with Due Regard to Economy.

The report by the Scottish Legal Aid Board revealed that, of all firms in Scotland, the sole practitioner firm of NS Lockhart, 71 King Street, Kilmarnock, granted the highest number of advice and assistance applications for “interdict” (392) for the period January-October 2004.The next ranked firm granted 146, while the next ranked Kilmarnock firm granted only 30.

The report stated : “While conducting a selective analysis of Niels S Lockhart’s Advice and Assistance accounts, it was clear from the outset that much of his business comes from “repeat clients” and/or members of the same household/family, whom he has frequently admitted to Advice and Assistance. The analysis revealed persistent patterns of excessive client attendances, the vast majority of which are irrelevant, unnecessary and conducted without due regard to economy.”

“It was also clear that Niels S Lockhart makes grants for a number of interlinked matters, where there is clearly a “cross-over” of advice. Consecutive grants are also often made as a continuation of the same matter shortly after authorised expenditure has expired on the previous grant.”

“This appears to the Board to be a deliberate scheme by Niels S. Lockhart to make consecutive grants of Advice and Assistance on behalf of the same client for the same matter, for personal gain. By so doing, he has succeeded in obtaining additional funds by utilising new initial levels of authorised expenditure for matters where, had further requests for increases in authorised expenditure under the initial grant been made to the Board, they would with every likelihood have been refused by Board staff.”

“Closer scrutiny of Niels S Lockhart’s accounts and some client files has given rise to a number of other serious concerns, e.g. numerous meetings, standard of file notes, encouraging clients to advance matters while demonstrating a lack of progress.”

“After a meeting between SLAB officials & Mr Lockhart on 14 April 2005, Mr Lockhart was advised that SLAB’s Executive Team had approved of his firm’s accounts being removed from the guarantee of 30-day turnaround for payment of accounts, and that henceforth, to allow the Board the opportunity to satisfy itself that all fees and outlays had been properly incurred and charged by the firm, he would be required to submit additional supporting documentation and information with his accounts (including client files).”

The report continued : “Over the next few months, Mr Lockhart telephoned Accounts staff many times, often on a daily basis, repeatedly asking questions about the type of charge they considered acceptable or unacceptable in a variety of situations. Staff reported that, despite their having given Mr Lockhart the same answers time and again (both via correspondence and over the telephone),he continued to submit accounts with unacceptable charges. In a final effort to counter these continuing problems and to emphasis the Board’s stance in relation to the various issues of concern, our Accounts Department sent him a letter on 23 December 2005.”

“Mr Lockhart did not provide a written response to this correspondence. He did however contact Mr McCann of the Legal Defence Union, who wrote to the Board seeking a meeting with Board officials to try to resolve the payments issue. Our view however was that this would not advance matters as Mr Lockhart had been given a clear steer both after the April 2005 meeting and in the December when Accounts wrote to him on a number of matters.”

However, a key error was made by the Legal Aid Board, who stunningly failed to interview any of Mr Lockhart’s clients despite SLAB’s claims of excessive legal aid claims.

The SLAB report revealed : “Board staff have not interviewed any of Mr Lockhart’s clients as we have no reason to believe that, for example, the multitude of meetings that he held with them—sometimes more than twice daily—did not take place; our concern is that they DID take place and he has sought to claim payment for these multitudinous meetings,very few of which could be described as necessary and reasonable. We believe that such work had no regard to the principle of economy: our contention is that it is highly unlikely that any private paying client would be willing to meet the cost of the service provided by Mr Lockhart. That aside, there are cases set out in the report where it is difficult to see what advice or assistance has actually been provided. Our Accounts staff are continuing to assess a number of his accounts and examining the corresponding client files which indicate repetition of the issues that gave rise to our initial concerns.”

A solicitor speaking to Diary of Injustice yesterday branded SLAB’s decision not to interview Mr Lockhart’s clients as “incompetence in the extreme”.

He said : “Clearly had the Scottish Legal Aid Board interviewed Mr Lockhart’s clients, they could have established a clearer picture of exactly what was going on with regards to these excessive claims and the people who were making them.”

He continued : “If this had been a criminal investigation the clients would have been interviewed. Why was the Crown Office not brought in when clearly they should have been ?”

The report’s findings concluded : “From April 2002—March 2005, Niels S Lockhart was paid £672,585 from the Legal Aid Fund. Of this, £596,734 (89%) was in relation to Advice and Assistance cases, with £570,528 (85%) solely in relation to Civil Advice and Assistance.”

“In the Board’s view, the ranges of actions taken by Niels S. Lockhart towards achieving those payments are not those appropriate to a competent and reputable solicitor.”

“Based on the supporting evidence 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 nature of subject matters is often repeated, resulting in numerous duplicate/multiple/consecutive grants submitted under various guises, thus avoiding the Board’s computerised checks on subject matter. This pattern of conduct is deliberate,recurring and persistent, serving—in the Board’s view—as a device to generate considerable additional income for the firm to the detriment of the Scottish Legal Aid Fund.”

Outline of Correspondence SLAB-LSS re NS LockhartSLAB’s report was heavy on accusations yet achieved little, as did their complaint to the Law Society. The Scottish Legal Aid Board presented its report & complaint to the Law Society of Scotland on the 5th June 2006 but had to wait until a stunning FOUR YEARS until August 2010 before the Law Society even got round to sending SLAB a copy of the Law Society investigator’s report, which recommended that 11 out of 12 of SLAB’s complaints were “made out” and also recommended that the Law Society exercise its powers to exclude Niels Lockhart from giving advice & assistance to or from acting for a person to whom legal aid is made available.

However, two months later in October 2010, Mr Lockhart’s legal representative James McCann of the Legal Defence Union approached SLAB with a prospective offer that Mr Lockhart would withdraw fully from providing legal aid if SLAB’s S31 complaint was withdrawn. A Minute of Agreement was drafter and agreed with Niels Lockhart & the Legal Defence Union outlining the voluntary and irrevocable withdrawal by Mr Lockhart and the firm from the provision of all firms of legal assistance (funded by legal aid).

The Minute of Agreement also outlined the Board’s intention to make a press release detailing that following SLAB’s investigation into the firm and their subsequent complaint to the Law Society of Scotland, SLAB had accepted this permanent withdrawal by Mr Lockhart and the firm from providing all forms of legal assistance.

Letter to LSS, 11-10 redactedLegal Aid Board asked Law Society to withdraw complaint after secret deal was reached with Legal Defence Union. “In November 2010 SLAB advised the Law Society of Scotland that they had negotiated with Mr Lockhart his voluntary removal from the provision of legal assistance with effect from 1 November 2010 and acknowledged that the Society had separately received information from Mr Lockhart signalling his intention to withdraw from provision of all types of legal assistance. In the light of this, we sought to know from them whether they accepted SLAB’s withdrawal of the S31 complaint against Mr Lockhart.”

“In December 2010 the Law Society wrote to SLAB advising that they had accepted SLAB’s withdrawal of the complaint and that they were closing their file and taking no further action.”

The third & final part of this report revealing the reality of secret behind-the-scenes deals with the ‘pillars of regulation’ in Scotland’s legal system, along with comment from the Scottish Legal Aid Board & others, will feature in the next few days, as other cases & investigations have taken priority this week.

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