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Scottish Legal Aid officials hid details of dodgy claims scandal from clients as ‘Pay-Up threats’ from £600K legal aid rogue lawyer leaves pensioner, 70, starving, homeless

22 Sep

SLAB’s secret deal with Law Society of Scotland & LDU kept info on legal aid accusations against solicitor from clients. A VULNERABLE PENSIONER was left HOMELESS & HAD TO STARVE HERSELF to pay legal fees after being threatened by Kilmarnock solicitor Niels S Lockhart over a missed £100 payment of legal bills which were originally being paid by Legal Aid. Esther Francis, 70, had gone to Niels Lockhart for help in a dispute with her housing association and was originally put on legal aid by the lawyer who has already claimed around SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND POUNDS of legal aid money in previous years for other clients, however she was not told by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) her solicitor, Mr Lockhart had ‘voluntarily’ withdrew himself from being able to provide legal aid, AFTER he was accused by SLAB of making excessive legal aid claims.

Speaking to Diary of Injustice, Esther Francis spoke of the horrific situation her solicitor Mr Lockhart had put her in, which became so bad she was forced to put in a complaint to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) about how she was treated. Esther has since found another solicitor but Mr Lockhart is now withholding her files so her situation regarding a resolution to her legal problems is far from certain until the SLCC and the Law Society of Scotland act against Mr Lockhart.

Esther said : “It started off with me due legal aid then unknown to me, him stopping legal aid, then he told me he couldn’t keep me on as a client as he told me he was going private and he sent me to Saltcoates for another lawyer,,which was a a wasted journey, then Neil Lockhart got back in touch with me about 6 weeks later, about Nov-Dec last year, telling me to come into his office and he will take me back on if i paid private.”

“He told me he usually charged £195 an hour but he will give me a reduced rate of £70 per meeting, so I agreed as he told me all the money I give him will be refunded back to me, when it goes to court, so I believed him and he then put the 3 week meetings up by £10, then I was paying £100 at the end. He wanted £140 but I told him I couldn’t afford it, so this went on for 6 or 7 months until I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere with him, so I cancelled my last appointment with him in June this year as I could not afford to pay him and was unwell.”

“When I told him I couldn’t manage down he then phoned me back to get money off me, as he told me to pay him either by bank card over phone or send a cheque to pay him, when I questioned him re;my claim he was dealing with on my behalf for over a year, he told me that my case couldn’t go to court as it costs a lot of money, so he lied to me by stringing me along for money I never had and couldn’t even afford, so when he never got any more money off me, this is when he sent that threatening letter to me for money to finish my claim off, but it wasn’t progressing and he was wasting my time,and my claim would have been never ending, so i realised he was getting money off me under false pretences by lying to me.”

“That letter he sent me is now with the SLCC complaints dept with my complaints about him. I am an oap aged 70 and I have now been in touch with another lawyer who is taking me on for legal aid that I am entitled to, but Neil Lockhart is withholding my files because he is mad at me for dumping him, if he wasn’t greedy and never lied to me, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“I was due legal aid from day one and didn’t know at the time that Neil Lockhart got taken off legal aid due to his excessive legal aid claims and that’s why he couldn’t get any more legal aid, because he was too greedy for money. I starved myself, couldn’t pay my bills and then had to sell all my furniture because of Neil Lockhart and give up my council house as I couldn’t afford to stay there and now I am in lodgings and homeless because of him and I still owe debts because I was paying him instead of my other bills as he promised me my claim was being dealt with.”

“It was that bad that my daughter wrote to him unknown to me, twice, to tell him to drop this case as I couldn’t afford it, and told him that I was due legal aid and that I was unwell and not eating properly, struggling with bills and not being able to afford to heat flat,but he took no notice.”

slabScottish Legal Aid Board did not tell Lockhart’s clients their solicitor could no longer do legal aid work. Crucially, the Scottish Legal Aid Board DID NOT tell Esther her solicitor had ‘removed himself’ from the legal aid register or that he had been accused of making ‘excessive legal aid claims’ by SLAB after a lengthy investigation into his claims. SLAB officials also did not inform Esther or any of Mr Lockhart’s clients that a complaint had been filed with the Law Society of Scotland about Lockhart’s legal aid claims. Esther only became aware of the fact her solicitor Mr Lockhart could not provide legal aid after she read the Sunday Mail newspaper article, reported HERE.

Esther told Diary of Injustice : “I wasn’t aware of him getting struck off legal aid in October, as he just told me he was going private at a reduced rate, and when i saw him in the Sunday Mail, i realised I was being conned by him as he was not doing much to assist my claim. I was never contacted by the Scottish Legal Aid Board to tell me about Niels Lockhart had been taken off legal aid. I had to read about Niels Lockhart in The Sunday Mail newspaper.”

Today, legal insiders who have studied media reports & details of what happened to Esther Francis believe most of Esther’s mounting legal problems and the negative effect of Mr Lockhart’s poor service on Esther’s health could all have been avoided if SLAB officials had communicated directly with Esther to let her know her lawyer was no longer entitled to provide her with legal representation funded by legal aid.

A solicitor speaking to Diary of Injustice condemned the Scottish Legal Aid Board for not writing to Esther directly to inform her that Mr Lockhart had been taken off the legal aid register. He accused SLAB of being directly responsible for the predicament of Ms Francis and many others who find themselves in the same position when their lawyers are found out as legal aid fraudsters.

He said : “The Scottish Legal Aid Board have contact details for all claimants of legal aid. SLAB should have written to Ms Francis immediately to inform her that her claim for legal aid could not continue under Mr Lockhart because he was no longer able to carry out legal aid work. In my opinion SLAB have as much a duty to inform clients of their solicitor’s legal aid status, as they do to protect legal aid from fraudulent claims, however it appears SLAB cannot perform either role very effectively in the case of Mr Lockhart.”

An official from one of Scotland’s consumer organisations also criticised SLAB over the case. She said : “The Scottish Legal Aid Board receive over £160 million pounds a year to hand out to solicitors in legal aid and it costs nearly £13 million pounds a year to run the board. Given the enormous amounts of public money being thrown at legal aid in Scotland, I think most people would expect the Scottish Legal Aid Board to make sure any client on legal aid who is put in a situation where their solicitor is taken off the legal aid register, gets to know about it immediately from the board directly, rather than simply leaving it up to the solicitor to tell their clients, which we see from this case and others we know about, does not happen.”

Several clients have told Diary of Injustice there appears to be no warning system in place for them to be directly told by SLAB of their solicitors change in legal aid when their certificates are withdrawn and why they have been withdrawn. A solicitor who works on legal aid confirmed there is no ‘warning system’ as such for clients in place that he is aware of.

He said : “SLAB are a bit worried if they tell a solicitor’s clients their solicitor’s legal aid certificate has been revoked, they might get complaints from the Law Society and hassle from the legal profession. However I agree these are no reasons to keep such critical information from clients.”

In a previous FOI response to Diary of Injustice, the Scottish Legal Aid Board refused to release details on complaints it had made to the Law Society of Scotland on the basis that : “The fact that a complaint was made by the Board might be misconstrued to the detriment of the individual solicitor involved, particularly in circumstances where the complaint was a)not by a member of the public, b) in relation to the solicitor’s engagement with board policies and procedures, and finally c) not upheld by the Society.”

The Scottish Legal Aid Board said releasing the information may cause the solicitor unwarranted substantial damage or distress.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board were asked for comment on why clients of solicitors who are removed from the Legal Aid Register are not told of the change in circumstances by SLAB, however SLAB have yet to issue a statement.

Esther’s story was reported in the Sunday Mail newspaper on Sunday 18 September 2011 :

Lawyer 600K legal aid hassles pensioner over 100 billLAWYER WHO RAKED IN £600K LEGAL AID HASSLES ESTHER,70, OVER £100 BILL

Sep 18 2011 Lauren Crooks, Sunday Mail

ROGUE lawyer Niels Lockhart is being probed by legal watchdogs over his treatment of an OAP client. Esther Francis, 70, says Lockhart left her in financial ruin and threatened her over bills she couldn’t afford.

The lawyer was hired by Esther two years ago to sort out a dispute with a housing association, with his fees paid by legal aid. But Esther wasn’t told Lockhart had been rapped by the Scottish Legal Aid Board for “unnecessary and excessive” claims “not appropriate to a competent and reputable solicitor”.

He accepted a legal aid ban earlier this year but continued acting for Esther while charging her £80-an-hour. She paid Lockhart £560 but missed a £100 payment – and then received a threatening letter from him in June.

Esther complained to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and is demanding a refund.

She said: “I was worried when I got his threatening letter because he said he’d sue me and it would cost hundreds. “I starved m yself, couldn’t pay my bills then had to sell my furniture.”

Esther, who lives in Motherwell, Lanarkshire, added: “I still owe debts because I was paying him instead of other bills. He has left me in ruins. “I think he knew I was vulnerable and thought I’d just do as he said. He took advantage of me.”

Lockhart, who raked in £600,000 of taxpayers’ cash over two years, was rapped earlier this year for ramping up his claims. He could not be contacted for comment. He accepted a legal aid ban but was not reported to police nor struck off and still works in Kilmarnock.

Diary of Injustice used Freedom of Information legislation to expose the secret deals done between the Scottish Legal Aid Board, Law Society of Scotland & the Legal Defence Union to prevent complaints against Lockhart being heard at the Law Society while also ensuring no criminal charges were asked for by SLAB officials over accusations of his inflated legal aid claims.

However, after the Sunday Mail newspaper published the full extent of Mr Lockhart’s legal aid claims in March 2011, worried officials at the Law Society of Scotland demanded SLAB withhold the Law Society of Scotland’s report on Niels Lockhart, a story I covered in April, here : Something to Hide : Legal Aid Chiefs ordered to withhold Law Society’s report on Niels Lockhart as law regulator demands secrecy on legal aid scandals

If the Scottish Legal Aid Board had put in so much effort & public expense to investigate Mr Lockhart for inflated legal aid claims, only to close their case with a secret agreement they refused to publish along with one of now revealed to be many Law Society attempts at a report in the case, surely SLAB could have easily contacted Mr Lockhart’s clients to inform them of the situation and how it may affect their access to justice.

SLAB & LAW SOCIETY MADE MORE EFFORT ON SECRECY THAN INFORMING CLIENTS :

ONE LAW FOR LAWYERS : SECRET REPORT REVEALS LEGAL AID BOARD, LAW SOCIETY & LEGAL DEFENCE UNION ‘COSY RELATIONSHIP’ IN LOCKHART CASE :

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.”

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.”

All that effort on behalf of the solicitor, yet no effort to inform or protect clients of Mr Lockhart or other solicitors who withdraw from legal aid work or are stripped of their legal aid certificates. This is not justice. This is certainly not consumer or client protection from a legal profession which claims to speak for the public interest as well as represent the interests of its members. Clearly Ms Francis interests and those of many other clients caught in the same circumstances, some second to the interests of solicitors and the legal profession as a whole.

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