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CASH TRAPPED: £1.2m legal aid Lawyer who took £700K Legal Aid in just 3 years – and was investigated for dodgy claims, demanded more public cash after being barred from legal aid register

10 Jun

Lawyer accused of dodgy legal aid claims demanded more cash from taxpayer for ‘old accounts’. A SOLICITOR based in Kilmarnock who claimed over £670K in taxpayer funded legal aid in three years, demanded more public cash for ‘old accounts’ after he had been removed from the legal aid register as a result of an investigation by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) after being accused of making dodgy legal aid claims.

Documents released by the Scottish Legal Aid Board – Extra Payments to Niels Lockhart – in response to a Freedom of Information request – reveal solicitor Niels S Lockhart, of NS Lockhart Solicitors, Kilmarnock – who has been paid over £1.2million of legal aid since 2003 –  was paid a further £34,711 (excl VAT) of taxpayer funded legal aid by the Legal Aid Board – even though he was already barred from doing any further legal aid work.

The information provided by SLAB shows Lockhart submitted a further 228 accounts to the Legal Aid Board – demanding more public cash for work allegedly completed before being removed from the legal aid register on 30 November 2010.

Figures provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board giving a breakdown of the extra accounts submitted by Lockhart by value (ex VAT) reveal:

Nil Payment; 38, up to £50; 43, £50 to £100; 37, £100 to £250; 65, £250 to £500; 35, above £500; 10 – giving a total of 228

A breakdown of accounts by type of litigation revealed the type of legal aid Lockhart claimed for : Advice & Assistance Civil; 208, Advice & Assistance Criminal; 3, Civil legal aid; 5, Solemn criminal; 1, Summary Criminal; 11 – giving a total of 228

Whether any of the accounts were subject of further investigation or were included in the original investigations by SLAB of Lockhart’s ‘dodgy legal aid claims’ was not revealed by the Legal Aid Board.

However, it has also transpired Niels Lockhart tried to sue a national newspaper over their coverage of his legal aid claims.

The case was withdrawn from court earlier this year.

Historical payment accounts published by the Scottish Legal Aid Board also reveal Lockhart received a whopping £1.2million (£1,213,700) of public cash since the Legal Aid Board began publishing the names of firms and the size of payments from 2003 onwards.

From 2003 to 2013, Neils Lockhart claimed the following amounts of publicly funded legal aid: £280,200 in 2003-2004, £321,400 in 2004-2005, £95,400 in 2005-2006, £160,800 in 2006-2007, £133,300 in 2007-2008, £82,000 in 2008-2009, £65,800 in 2009-2010, £67,400 in 2010-2011, £7,200 in 2011-2012, £200 in 2012-2013

Niels Lockhart was previously the subject of investigations by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, who released their Report to the Law Society of Scotland Section 31, Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986: Niels S Lockhart  in response to a Freedom of Information request.

A media investigation into Lockhart’s claims and the Legal Aid Board’s role was published earlier, here : One law for lawyers : Secret Report reveals Legal Aid Board, Law Society & Legal Defence Union ‘cosy relationship’ in Lockhart case

The Scottish Legal Aid Board previously accused Lockhart – who took around £670,000 of taxpayers money in two years – of deliberately ramping up his legal aid 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.

BACKGROUND : LOCKHART, LEGAL AID & LEGAL DEFENCE UNION

It took the Scottish Legal Aid Board years to catch up with dodgy claims filed by solicitor Niels Lockhart. SLAB eventually 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 – in June 2005.

The Scottish 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 Scottish Legal Aid Board report also revealed : “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.”

However, 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.

Diary of Injustice continued to report on allegations surrounding Mr Lockhart and the Law Society of Scotland’s efforts to avoid a prosecution. All previous reports can be viewed HERE.

If you suspect a solicitor is committing legal aid fraud, or if you feel your own solicitor is making fraudulent legal aid claims, email Diary of Injustice at scottishlawreporters@gmail.com

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