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The Price of Justice : Scottish Legal Aid Board ‘frequent flyers’ & Crown Office ‘stationery kings’ charge millions to taxpayer funded credit cards

14 Sep

legal aid crown officeTaxpayer funded credit cards keep Legal Aid officials flying, Crown Office in stationery heaven. AS impoverished Scots struggle to obtain legal aid for desperately needed legal representation or access to court, and victims of crime struggle to obtain justice for wrongs against them, an ongoing investigation by Diary of Injustice into the use of taxpayer funded credit cards by key organisations connected to Scotland’s legal system has revealed MILLIONS OF POUNDS being charged, collectively, by agencies such as the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) which receives £160million a year from taxpayers and the £100 Million a year Crown Office (COPFS) to TAXPAYER FUNDED CREDIT CARDS, sometimes referred to as “procurement cards” issued by the Scottish Government, for what some critics have branded “almost uncontrolled expenditure”.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation have revealed officials from the Scottish Legal Aid Board are literally being kept in the air by flights charged up to the taxpayer, while at the other end of the scale, the Crown Office has disclosed it has spent nearly TWO MILLION POUNDS in four years on credit cards.

In a sixteen page disclosure from the Scottish Legal Aid Board, which can be viewed online here : SCOTTISH LEGAL AID BOARD CREDIT CARD CHARGES, page after page of charges racked up to taxpayer funded credit cards reveals airline flights for SLAB executives some charged up to nine hundred pounds at a time, along with multiple entries at in some cases, thousands of pounds for accommodation for SLAB officials at most well known hotels in the UK (some charged at over £3K a time) and just about every other imaginable charge ranging from Argos office items to computer software (one ‘mail manager’ software product alone cost £7K) totalling up to tens of thousands of pounds.

There are literally so many charges for items such as flights, hotel stays, & accommodation all across the country, it is impossible to list them all in this article.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board said in a statement accompanying the figures : “The Scottish legal Aid Board currently has 6 credit cards, all of which incur an annual fee. The Board’s use of these is more akin to procurement cards and, in fact, the Board is in the process of replacing these with Government Procurement Cards (GPC) provided under the Scottish Government Collaborative GPC arrangement.”

SLAB’s statement continued : “Credit cards are not provided to any Board members nor are they provided to any employees to cover their own business travel and subsistence. Instead, these cards are primarily used by our Procurement team to purchase in situations where setting up an invoicing arrangement was not possible or practical at the time. This is typically the situation for travel and accommodation costs and some IT and training costs. Credit cards are also held by designated personnel for disaster recovery purposes.”

A solicitor questioned why SLAB officials need to fly all around the country and engage in so much travel, accommodation & road shows.

He said : “The Scottish Legal Aid Board has become somewhat unwieldy, having drifted away from its duty to regulate & award legal aid, ensuring access to justice for those who need it. Clearly there is scope for saving a great deal of money, travel time and effort which could all be put back into giving ordinary members of the public increased access to justice.”

The Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service was less forthcoming in offering a detailed disclosure of its use of credit cards under the previous Lord Advocate, now Dame Elish Angiolini DBE QC, however the total expenditure raked up by COPFS staff on taxpayer funded credit cards appears to dwarf even that of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, with the Crown Office admitting its staff have rake up charges of a staggering HALF A MILLION POUNDS on credit cards every year.

In 2007-2008, staff at the Lord Advocate’s Crown Office charged £554,194 to taxpayers via credit cards. In 2008-2009, the figure was £490,232. In 2009-2010 the figure came down to £476,682 and the final figures available for 2010-2011 saw a more significant drop to £409,208. The figures total £1.93 million over 4 years, all paid for by taxpayers.

COPFS credit card chargesA statement accompanying the Crown Office disclosure said : “The Government Procurement Card has been in use across Government departments for some 15 years. Cards are allocated to holders of specific posts e.g. office managers. By far the larges use of the cards is for stationery and other office equipment under the relevant contracts. Robust controls are in place. An on-going record of all expenditure against each card is maintained., this is reconciled with the charge shown on the monthly statement from the card supplier and each record is then independently checked and authorised prior to approval of payment of the monthly statement. By using these cards COPFS receive two invoices (one for each card type) each month, compared to numerous individual invoices for each transactions. This obviously helps us to minimise processing costs while at the same time ensuring prompt payment of our suppliers.”

Unlike the more detailed disclosure from the Scottish Legal Aid Board, no detailed account of credit card charges was provided by the Crown Office therefore claims on what public money was actually spent on cannot be verified.

SLCCEager to get in on the action, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) also use credit cards. The SLCC has admitted to having two credit cards, currently, only one, in the name of its ‘current’ Chief Executive Rosemary Agnew. Papers disclosed by the SLCC show their Office Manager & Ms Agnew ran up a bill of £3532.76 on a variety of purchases including airline & train tickets, office stationery & equipment, books & catering. The full disclosure from the SLCC can be viewed online here : CREDIT CARD CHARGES OF SCOTTISH LEGAL COMPLAINTS COMMISSION

However, the figures released by the SLCC DO NOT cover the term of its former CEO Eileen Masterman, who resigned after a period of ‘ill health’, being away from her post for six months or so after a confrontation with Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney who quizzed Ms Masterman over secret meetings the SLCC had with convicted insurers Marsh who run the Law Society’s controversial Master Policy insurance scheme designed to protect negligent & crooked solicitors from damages claims.

The SLCC’s credit cards are not funded by taxpayers, instead being funded by annual levies paid by solicitors in Scotland who in turn recover the money (in some cases multiple times) from clients by significantly ramping up legal fees for legal services provided to clients.

SPAT OVER SECRET HOSPITALITY AT SCOTTISH LEGAL COMPLAINTS COMMISSION :

Rosemary AgnewSLCC CEO Rosemary Agnew, vexed about media publication of hospitality. While the SLCC were happy to disclose the amounts their officials spent on credit cards ultimately funded by the legal profession & client fees, the SLCC’s ‘current’ Chief Executive Rosemary Agnew, in what appears to be a show of anger for adverse media coverage of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, recently accused journalists of vexatious use of FOI legislation to uncover information relating to secret hospitality the SLCC has been dishing out to other ‘dodgy’ regulators & organisations connected to the legal profession.

Enquiries into hospitality received & offered by the SLCC began after an insider close to the Commission revealed hospitality & clandestine meetings had taken place between SLCC members & outside organisations which some at the law complaints quango felt should have been made public. A resulting investigation on these tip offs revealed instances such as secret meetings between the SLCC’s Chair Jane Irvine and groups such as the Legal Defence Union at plush locations such as Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel.

One legal observer commented the SLCC’s accusations against journalists appeared to be “suspicious and somewhat vindictive”, given previous FOI requests and publication in the media of information on hospitality at the law complaints quango had forced the SLCC to publish a register of hospitality detailing gifts & other items its board members & officials have received from external organisations.

He said : “What’s the big deal refusing to publish what kind of hospitality the SLCC has offered others when they have already published hospitality they received. Is there something to hide?”

CREDIT CARD EXPENSES UPDATE 20 SEPTEMBER 2011 :

Reacting to media reporting of their Credit Card spending, the Scottish Legal Aid Board have today 20 September, provided further information on how they use credit cards to pay for items.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board said : Whilst the fullest information possible was given … in a spirit of transparency; with hindsight we should have given you some further description around the information we provided to avoid any misinterpretation. This further description is outlined below :

1. Most references to payments to hotels refer to venue hire for training events (“Roadshows”) for the profession, which might involve several hundred solicitor attendees. Board staff do not usually stay overnight at these venues, so the majority of charges do not refer to any overnight accommodation.

2. Flight purchases will be for one or more members of staff.

3. Credit cards are not provided to individual Board members nor to Board employees to cover their own business travel and subsistence or any other costs.

4. The cards are only used by the Board’s purchasing department for payment over the phone or internet in situations where setting up an invoicing arrangement is not possible or practical at the time – typically for travel, venue hire, or some IT purchases. They are procurement cards, they are not for personal use.

5. Staff do not purchase accommodation or flights themselves.

6. The purchases are for Board business or Board premises only, not any personal purchases.

7. There is a robust internal process for the authorisation of credit card transactions.

8. At all times costs are controlled and purchasing protocols adhered to.

9. Credit cards are a common and convenient form of payment, used by the Board for standard and necessary purchases, as in similar organisations.

Taking into account enquiries made by individuals, solicitors and msps to Diary of Injustice on this article, and noting readers comments, the Scottish Legal Aid Board were asked why their officials should be flying outwith Scotland or taking part in events outwith Scotland or outwith the UK as part of their duties to administer the Scottish Legal Aid Budget to persons applying for legal aid in Scottish cases being heard in Scottish courts.

A SLAB spokesperson indicated a response would be provided soon.

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