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SCRUTINY ON THE BOUNTY: Court staff accepted gifts from law firms probed by Police for alleged legal aid fraud – days after appointment of Scotland’s latest top judge Lord Carloway

26 May

Court staff accepted gifts from lawyers being investigated by Police. DOCUMENTS obtained by journalists reveal just a few days after Lord Carloway was named as Scotland’s new top judge – Court staff employed by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) accepted gifts from law firms under criminal investigation for alleged legal aid fraud.

The information came to light in an unpublished register of gifts and hospitality to Scottish Court Service staff – released in response to a Freedom of Information request.

The ‘Gifts and Hospitality’ register now identifies law firms & hospitality providers – after DOI journalists previously approached Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew for help in breaking court secrecy.

Entries in the latest gifts register reveal that on 22 December 2015, Central Court Lawyers gave hospitality in the form of ‘Cake, 6 wine and 12 beers’ to Livingston Sheriff Court staff – who then entered the items into a “staff raffle”.

However, it was reported by the media during February 2015 that Central Court Lawyers were under investigation by Police Scotland for irregularities in legal aid claims.

Last year, when the story was reported, Police Scotland confirmed “Central Court Lawyers are assisting us with our inquiries.”

Officers are thought to have interviewed serving and former employees of Central Court Lawyers as part of their inquiry, which began in 2014.

Central Court Lawyers – based in Livingston – was established by lawyer Neil Robertson and solicitor-advocate Ian Bryce in 1997.

Ian Bryce has held a number of positions at the Law Society of Scotland, including vice-convener of the legal aid negotiating team.

Central Court Lawyers has previously been included in the Legal 500 – a publication listing the top law firms in the UK.

The Hospitality & Gifts Register 2015-2016 reveals staff took hospitality from legal aid probe lawyers.

In response to media enquiries, a spokesperson for the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (SCTS) claimed gifts had not been accepted.

The spokesperson said: “SCTS staff at Livingston Sheriff Court have not accepted hospitality from Central Court Lawyers. A small gift was accepted on behalf of staff in December 2015 and entered in the staff Christmas raffle.

The spokesperson continued: “This was fully declared in the Gifts and Hospitality Register.”

The SCTS were asked why staff accepted gifts from law firms under investigation by Police Scotland for legal aid irregularities.

A spokesperson said in response: “Gifts with a value over £15 require to be approved by a senior manager and the giver advised that details will be entered onto the register for transparency. If a manager has any concern regarding the offer of a gift HR will offer further advice.”

Previous versions of the hospitality register – Hospitality and Gifts to Court Staff 2010-2013have also included the names of solicitors such as Niels S Lockhart – who was investigated by the Scottish Legal Aid Board after he claimed over £600K in just two years.

Lockhart – who gave hospitality to staff at Ayr Sheriff Court in 2012 – subsequently withdrew from the legal aid register – with no action taken by the Law Society of Scotland or the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

Neils Lockhart continued to receive legal aid payments for unpaid accounts even after he quit the legal aid register, reported in further detail here: CASH TRAPPED: £1.2m legal aid Lawyer demanded more public cash after being barred from legal aid register

In response to details published by DOI during March 2015 in last year’s hospitality register to court staff – lawyers accused each other of using hospitality to poach clients from rival law firms and increase firms volume of legal aid business – reported in further detail here: GIFT HORSE: Secret gifts register reveals rogue lawyers & law firms using hospitality relationships with Scottish Court Service staff to increase legal aid business, poach clients from rival solicitors

Asked for comment on the current status of the investigation into Central Court Lawyers, the Scottish Legal Aid Board refused to provide further details.

A spokesperson for SLAB said: “It is inappropriate for us to comment on whether we are conducting specific investigations or enquiries into a solicitors’ firm, or if we are, what they involve.”

“The intention is not to be unhelpful but, for example, where there is an investigation we don’t generally comment because this would be premature in terms of the stage any enquiry has reached in determining if the matters being examined are improper or unlawful.”

“To do so would be inappropriate if an investigation subsequently concluded that nothing improper or unlawful had occurred. It could also be potentially prejudicial if an investigation found improper or unlawful activity and the matter was subsequently referred to the Crown.”

Court staff at Hamilton Sheriff court were also rapped on the knuckles for failing to properly record gifts from a number of local law firms who operate in the area.

An entry in the register reveals “A number of local solicitors firms including but not restricted to:Kenneth Greener & Co; Linda George Family; Diarmid Bruce; Ness Gallagher; Lanarkshire Law Practice gave “25 boxes/tins of chocolates; 10 boxes of biscuits; 18 bottles of wine; 2 bottles of spirits;   21 miniatures of whisky/baileys; 3 large cakes; 1 recipe book.” to local court staff.

The failure to adequately record the ‘hospitality’ drew ire from Court chiefs who said “The correct procedure for recording gifts was not followed in this instance. Management in this court has been reminded of the need to follow the procedure in future.”

A number of law firms & solicitors who operate at Hamilton & Livingston Sheriff Court have previously been investigated for legal aid fraud.

Commenting on earlier versions of the register – an Edinburgh solicitor said: “The contents of the court hospitality register read as a who’s who of legal aid investigations just waiting to happen.”

Previously – Diary of Injustice reported on concerns regarding hospitality involving Scottish Court Service employees where Gillian Thompson – who now serves as Judicial Complaints Reviewer (JCR) – was asked by the Scottish Court Service to investigate reports of irregularities in hospitality given to court staff.

The request for the investigation came after the Scottish Court Service received Freedom of Information requests regarding hospitality in the courts, prompting concerns some staff may have accepted gifts or hospitality but failed to register.

Report said SCS Registers insufficient, Court staff involved in private gains failed to declare. Gillian Thompson’s Report on Hospitality & Gifts in the SCS stated:  “The information currently captured on the registers is insufficient to provide assurance that staff are using their common sense and considering issues such as conflict of interest.

Ms Thompson went on to recommend the “SCS should revise the Policy on Acceptance of Gifts, Rewards and Hospitality to ensure that it is fit for purpose for all staff, taking account of the various roles performed within SCS. It may also be time to revisit the levels of value for gifts and hospitality.”

The former AIB’s report also revealed court staff were using their positions to earn money privately from their links with lawyers and law firms operating in courts, stating “Several staff raised the issue of sheriff clerks who carry out extrajudicial taxations and private assessments and who personally benefit financially from these activities.”

Ms Thompson’s report roundly condemned this practice, stating: “Not only is it inappropriate in terms of the civil service code requirements for staff who are public servants to be able to receive private gain from their employment it is also highly divisive when other staff see such benefits being derived from simply being in the right post of Auditor of Court within the Sheriff Courts.”

Ms Thompson recommended in her report the “SCS should bring the practice of sheriff clerks profiting privately from their employment by SCS to an end as quickly as possible”.

HOW COURT CHIEFS LOST HOSPITALITY INFORMATION BATTLE

When DOI launched an initial investigation into hospitality and graft among court staff, the Scottish Court Service refused to release information relating to the gift register, claiming “the names of the gift or hospitality provider would be deemed as personal information” and “as the provider of the gift or hospitality was not made aware at the time that their name may be released, we consider disclosure of such is likely to bring the Scottish Court Service into conflict with the data protection principles.”

However, the Freedom of Information request – from DOI – triggered a review of hospitality policy at the Scottish Court Service, leading to names of ‘’hospitality’ providers being added to the register.

Richard Warner of the SCS said: “I can advise you that due to your request for this information, the Scottish Court Service has changed the policy covering hospitality and gifts to ensure that the provider of any hospitality or gift are made aware that their name shall be entered on to our register and may be disclosed if requested in any future information request. This policy change shall take effect as from 1 January 2014 so the release of names may be considered in any future request for gifts or hospitality offered from this date. The policy also states that if the provider does not consent to their name being considered for release then the gift or hospitality cannot be accepted by a member of staff.”

After a request for review of refusal to disclose the information, the SCS again refused – this time around, claiming it would cost them too much to contact each law firm to ask permission to disclose their ‘hospitality’ to court employees. The SCS claimed they would have to contact every lawyer who gave a gift and this would cost too much to provide the information.

DOI journalists took the matter up with Rosemary Agnew – the Scottish Information Commissioner – who requested Courts Chief Eric McQueen provide an explanation as to why the courts were blocking release of information on hospitality relationships between the legal profession and court staff.

John Kelly, Freedom of Information Officer at the SIC said: “Having written to and discussed the matter with the SCS, without being required to do so by way of a formal Decision Notice, the SCS has agreed to provide you with the information requested, subject to redactions in terms of section 38(1)(b) of FOISA on the basis that to disclose some of the names of individuals would breach the first data protection principle of the Data Protection Act 1998 (the DPA). I understand that the names of Solicitor and Law Firms will be provided.”

After the intervention of the Scottish Information Commissioner, the SCS subsequently released the hospitality list to DOI.

Richard Warner for the SCS said: “Having reconsidered your request, and the SCS response, I now attach a list which indicates law firms where this information has been recorded.  For the reasons stated in our earlier response this does not include the names of any individuals concerned as there could have been no expectation on their part that this information would be circulated or published widely.  As indicated previously, steps are being taken to ensure that individual persons are made aware at the relevant time that their details made be released as a result of an information request.”

While the position of Scotland’s latest top judge on court staff transparency is unknown – Lord Carloway has already attacked proposals to bring the judiciary into line with court employees and others in public life who are required to register their interests, gifts and hospitality.

Carloway recently attacked proposals before the Scottish Parliament – Petition PE1458: Register of Interests for members of Scotland’s judiciary – calling on judges to register their own interests and hospitality.

Reported in further detail here: LORD NO-WAY: Top judge Lord Carloway hits out at judicial interests register proposal – Lord Carloway claimed justice could grind to a halt in a constitutional calamity if judges were forced to declare their vast wealth, property owning interests, professional links and other financial affairs – just like politicians, members of public bodies, local councillors are required to reveal in publicly available registers.

Lord Carloway (real name: Colin Sutherland) told MSPs: “The proper administration of justice could be inhibited by the disclosure of the judiciary’s otherwise confidential financial arrangements. In that connection, there is the possibility that an individual judge may be the subject of misconceived criticism, deriving from the disclosure of personal financial information, where those interests are tangential and de minimis.”

The widely supported proposals – debated at the Scottish Parliament on 9 October 2014 – call for the creation of a publicly available register of judicial interests containing information on judges backgrounds, their personal wealth, undeclared earnings, business & family connections inside & outside of the legal profession, offshore investments, hospitality, details on recusals and other information routinely lodged in registers of interest across all walks of public life in the UK and around the world.

Previous articles on the lack of transparency within Scotland’s judiciary, investigations by Diary of Injustice including reports from the media, and video footage of debates at the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee can be found here : A Register of Interests for Scotland’s Judiciary.

Previous articles on hospitality and gifts to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, reports on gift giving to court employees and investigations by Diary of Injustice on the relationship between law firms and SCTS staff can be found here Hospitality and Gifts to the Scottish Courts.

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