Scottish Legal Aid Board asks for clients to tell on go-nowhere cases funded by legal aid. IF YOUR LAWYER IS ABUSING OR FALSIFYING CLAIMS FOR LEGAL AID FUNDS, COME TO US say the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) after clients of legal aid scandal solicitor Niels S Lockhart demanded an investigation by authorities into accusations by Legal Aid Chiefs exposed in a Sunday Mail newspaper investigation the solicitor made “unnecessary & excessive” claims for legal aid, while raking in over £600,000 in legal aid funds paid out of the public purse in over two years.
The announcement from the Scottish Legal Aid Board comes in response to a further article in the Sunday Mail newspaper reporting on the concerns of clients of solicitor Niels Lockhart. One client referred to in the latest Sunday Mail report on the Lockhart-Legal Aid scandal said he had been to Mr Lockhart’s offices on a staggering SEVENTEEN VISITS yet his case had not advanced.
However while SLAB are apparently now keen to speak to Mr Lockhart’s former clients over their concerns, it appears the board are also keen to stress they “saw nothing to indicate fraudulent practices” yet in an amazing contradiction, the board accused Mr Lockhart of making “unnecessary & excessive” claims for legal aid, accusations which in the eyes of many, clearly amount to abuse of public funds.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Legal Aid Board said on Friday : “During the Board’s thorough scrutiny of Mr Lockhart’s accounts we saw nothing to indicate fraudulent practices as opposed to what appeared to be unnecessary and unreasonable work. In addition, public money was protected because we only paid for work we were satisfied had actually been done and was necessary to advance the clients’ cases. Any work thought not to be reasonable was not paid.”
“The issue here was that the work Mr Lockhart did was not consistent with the principle of working with “due regard to economy”. For example, having an excessive number of meetings which did not advance a case. Where we thought there were too many meetings or meetings which were of no value, we did not pay Mr Lockhart for those meetings. In coming to these decisions, we had full access to the evidence on the case files.”
Keen to stress public funds had been “protected” from the solicitor who had claimed over £600,000 in legal aid funds in two years, SLAB’s spokesperson continued : “The key issue is that as a result of the work done by the Board in investigating this matter, we protected public funds and Mr Lockhart can no longer do legal aid work. The Board played an important role in trying to bring this matter to an end and achieved the best outcome for the taxpayer as Mr Lockhart can no longer do legal aid work.”
The statement ended, calling for Mr Lockhart’s former clients to contact SLAB with their concerns : “Should any former legal aid clients of NS Lockhart have information which would constitute fraudulent activity they can contact the Board or the Police about their concerns.”
If clients of Mr Lockhart or indeed any clients of solicitors across Scotland have concerns about their cases and legal aid funding, I would urge them to approach the Scottish Legal Aid Board immediately, while also copying in their information & concerns to myself via firstname.lastname@example.org to ensure positive action is taken in relation to legal aid abuses while also enabling the media to report on these matters and alert other clients to the potential dangers of using solicitors & law firms who abuse legal aid.
The latest report from the Sunday Mail :
Apr 10 2011 Exclusive by Lauren Crooks, Sunday Mail
FORMER clients of rogue lawyer Niels Lockhart want police to probe his Legal Aid scam.Lockhart was banned from Legal Aid work after claiming £600,000 of taxpayers’ cash in two years.
A Scottish Legal Aid Board report said he routinely made “unnecessary and excessive” claims. But the Law Society of Scotland took four years to act on the report and then cut a secret deal which allowed him to simply agree to stop claiming Legal Aid. Slab ruled there had been no criminality – but admitted they didn’t speak to any of his clients.
Andrew Garland, 52, hired Lockhart to represent him in a compensation claim in 2009. The fees were paid by Legal Aid. He said: “I went to his office about 17 times and it was always the same. I was wasting my time because we were getting no further forward.
“Not once has SLAB been in touch – I can’t believe it. If it’s a case of them not having enough information, I’d be first in line to tell them what he was doing.”
Another client, who asked not to be named, fumed: “I can’t understand why the police haven’t been involved with this. I was being called in and he would just read me a letter or something he could easily have done over the phone. “When I read the Sunday Mail’s story, it all suddenly made sense.”
Slab said Lockhart’s tricks were “not appropriate to a competent and reputable solicitor” – but the 60-year-old continues to run his one-man firm in Kilmarnock.
I reported on the secret deal between the Law Society of Scotland, Scottish Legal Aid Board and the little known Legal Defence Union in an earlier article, reprinted below :
Legal 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.”
SLAB’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.
Legal 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.”
In the light of revelations by the media that solicitors have been able to quietly withdraw from the legal aid register after secret deals were struck between the Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Legal Aid Board & the Legal Defence Union over irregularities which collectively, could run in to millions of pounds, the issue is likely to receive calls for a full investigation when the Scottish Parliament, now dominated by msps from the Scottish National Party, reconvenes for its next session.
The issue of abuse of legal aid may well be a test of the Scottish Government’s resolve to ensure legal aid is targeted towards those who actually need it, while also bringing into focus the Scottish Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the massive £150 million pound legal aid budget, where the pressure will be on to investigate why secret deals between elements of the legal profession can see a lawyer escape penalty for misusing funds, while benefits cheats regularly face criminal convictions or even jail for their actions in cheating the public purse.