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JUSTICE DENIED: Solicitor accuses Law Society of Scotland of “abuse of power” – as legal aid decision by solicitors regulator leaves disabled clients denied access to justice

Solicitor Daniel Donaldson campaigns for reinstatement of legal aid certification. THE Law Society of Scotland has been accused of “abuse of power” and terminating access to justice for disabled & vulnerable clients – after a law centre was forced to pull out of legal aid work due to what appear to be internal politics at the professional body for Scottish solicitors.

The claims are made by a disabled solicitor – Daniel Donaldson – who founded Legal Spark – a Glasgow based law centre – with the aim of helping disabled people and other clients excluded from Scotland’s legal system.

Last year, the Law Society of Scotland granted permission to law centre Legal Spark to take on legal aid cases – allowing the law practice to take on cases from disabled people who had been unable to secure legal representation for their discrimination cases.

However, after the Law Society approved the law practice to engage in legal aid work, certification for Legal Spark to take on new legal aid cases has since been withdrawn – with unconvincing explanations from the Edinburgh based regulator – resulting in clients facing an uncertain future in terms of their access to the legal system.

Daniel Donaldson – who qualified as a solicitor six years ago – spent a year discussing Legal Spark with the Law Society of Scotland – which originally described the disabled solicitor’s proposals to create a facility to provide disabled clients with access to justice as “refreshing” and “innovative”.

However, the solicitor has now accused the Law Society of abandoning disabled clients and has set up a public petition calling for help in restoring his law centre’s legal aid certification

Readers can view more details of the petition here: Law Society of Scotland: Allow Legal Spark Legal Practice to continue Legal Aid Work

Speaking to a DOI journalist earlier today, solicitor Daniel Donaldson said the Law Society’s decision would deprive disabled people of access to justice.

Mr Donaldson said: “It’s completely unacceptable for any public authority to ignore disabled service users.  We set us Legal Spark because of a problem with access to justice.” 

“We volunteered to do legal aid work to help unrepresented disabled people.  Now the LSS has forced us to stop.  What’s changed in six months? Nothing.  They’ve made this decision for other reasons and not ,”public protection” as claimed.”

“The LSS believes they can do what they like with no scrutiny or accountability. Individuals are free to abuse their position. I call upon the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government to strip them off all their regulatory functions and being an end to their abuse of power”

Out of concern for clients welfare after the Law Society’s decision to revoke legal aid certification – Legal Spark contacted 134 lawyers from a list provided by the Law Society of Scotland of law firms who take on civil legal aid cases and specialise in discrimination law.

However, not one law firm has taken any of Legal Spark’s clients – a move which is generating suspicion among some legal observers that the Law Society is unfairly controlling and restricting certain law firms and their clients access to legal aid.

The Disability News Service reported on the story, quoting  a Law Society Scotland spokeswoman who said: her organisation had made “a mistake” in originally granting Legal Spark permission to carry out civil legal aid work, before realising that it was “not entitled to provide this type of advice under the society’s civil legal assistance quality assurance scheme”.

The Law Society spokeswoman said: “The committee made a final decision on 16 June that a waiver could not be granted for public protection reasons and as the compliance certificate for Legal Spark had been issued in error, it could no longer provide advice funded by legal aid.

“The committee agreed that given the circumstances, Legal Spark could continue working with its legal aid clients until 30 June, to allow sufficient time to make alternative arrangements for clients.”

She said law centres have to be “underpinned by a solicitor practice unit [which she said Legal Spark was not]in order to be able to be on the civil legal aid quality assurance scheme register and provide legal aid funded advice”.

She added: “While it is rare for something to go wrong, clients have to be able to seek redress and as it currently stands, Legal Spark is not in a position to meet those requirements.”

The Disability News Service further reported:  By noon yesterday (28 July), the Law Society Scotland had failed to explain why it has refused to enter into mediation, although it claims that it was “still in communication with Legal Spark”.

The website of Legal Spark describes the legal services provider as  an innovative legal practice. Legal spark is a law centre, not a firm of solicitors.

Legal Spark state: “All lawyers will provide legal services,  but our practice is unique. Our practice is driven to maximise social impact, rather than to maximise profits for shareholders. Our business is ethical, and our legal practice promotes social responsibility.”

The law centre also pledges to reinvest their profits of commercial legal work to help people by:

* organising and taking part in outreach events in communities

* providing legal advice and representation for disabled people

* maintaining a commitment to legal aid work

Legal Spark are located at 22 Montrose Street, Merchant City, Glasgow G1 1RE email: contact@legalspark.co.uk

Petition : Law Society of Scotland: Allow Legal Spark Legal Practice to continue Legal Aid Work

Campaign created by: Daniel Donaldson

Campaign website: http://www.legalspark.co.uk/

Campaign facebook: http://www.facebook.com/legalspark

To: The Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and others

The Law Society and Legal Aid Board informed Legal Spark Legal Practice that they had to stop all legal aid work on 30th June. As a result, “A”, “B’ plus many other disabled clients are forced to forego representation. They have the power to reverse their decision, together we can make that happen.

Why is this important?

Legal Spark was formed as a result of the crisis in legal aid. People were going without representation because they could not afford a lawyer. This is particularly the case for disabled people.

No one else would do this type of work, as it was deemed too expensive, not financially viable and also too complex.

Daniel Donaldson, a disabled Solicitor, set up Legal Spark with the Support of the Scottish Institute for Enterprise under their Young Innovators Challenge 2015 programme.

Daniel wanted to develop creative solutions to help people access justice and to fix the exclusion that disabled people face from the legal system.

Daniel spent one year talking to the Law Society about this issue, highlighting that it was important that everyone could access a lawyer.

Legal Spark consulted with the Chief Executive (Lorna Jack), the Head of Professional Practice, the Registrar and the Deputy Registrar (James Ness) and the Secretary to the Civil Legal Aid Quality Assurance Committee (Hannah Sayers) amongst others.

A document was prepared that explained what Legal Spark was planning to do. The Law Society accepted this document and did not object. The Law Society encouraged Legal Spark and found their approach “refreshing” and “innovative”.

Legal Spark was granted permission to do Legal Aid work in November 2015, and a compliance certificate was issued in December 2015. Legal Spark began helping the many disabled people that needed their help and began to have success.

In April 2016, the Law Society decided that they had made an “error” and instructed Legal Spark to stop all Legal Aid work by Thursday 30 June 2016. By this stage, Legal Spark had a number of clients, with active and complex cases, some of which were about to go to Court.

“A” is one such client. They had experienced awful disability discrimination from a University. They were not given adequate support to help them during a course, and had to leave. Additionally, Legal Spark uncovered evidence that the University’s staff had used “unprofessional language” in their approach to “A”. This case has now been lodged in Court.

“B” is another client adversely affected by this decision. B is also disabled and is housebound. They had tried to find a lawyer for sometime but because of their rural location in the Highlands there were no Solicitors available to help. Legal Spark took on this case and was successful (in part) in achieving a resolution for B. However, because B had been adversely affected by a decision of Highland Council, and had lost out financially, the case may need to go to Court. B is unable to find anyone else to help them.

These are only two examples of where Legal Spark is making a difference, there are others too.

Since establishing Legal Spark, Daniel Donaldson has not drawn a salary and has used some of his own money to sustain the Legal Practice while it develops and is able to stand on its own feet.

Legal Spark has also grown to enable it to employ staff and provide much need paid employment to some disabled people and unemployed law graduates.

The Legal Aid certificate meant that Legal Spark could help people who could not access help elsewhere. Now “A”, “B” and other will have to go without representation because of the Law Society of Scotland’s failures.

The Law Society’s Chief Executive (Lorna Jack)says that they have to act in the public interest. The Director of Regulation (Philip Yelland) shares this view.

1. Where is the public interest in denying disabled people representation?
2. Also, where is the public interest is giving permission to do Legal Aid work only to revoke that permission 6 months later?

The Law Society say that there are other Solicitors who can help, however this is not true.

Legal Spark contacted 134 Civil Legal Aid lawyers with advertised specialism in discrimination law. Even the biggest Legal Aid firm in Scotland could not help.

The Law Society has said that this will cause Legal Spark’s disabled client’s “inconvenience”. This is an offensive comment; they have never met any client, they have ignored client’s opinions, and also refused to acknowledge that they will suffer substantial prejudice in their cases because of the Law Society’s decision.

This petition is addressed to the Law Society and the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

It is important that you fulfil your roles correctly.

Overturn your decision to stop Legal Spark doing legal aid work, remedy the mistake you have made and apologise. This is the only way you can restore public trust and continue to say you act in the public interest.

Allow Legal Spark, and their clients the opportunity to continue to work together for the public interest and tackle the horrors faced by disabled people on a daily basis.
How it will be delivered

Signatures to this petition will be emailed, delivered in person, or a press conference will be arranged.

 

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NEW CHEATS FOR THE DOCK: Six lawyers probed by Police for legal aid fraud – as investigation uncovers banned legal aid solicitors raking in profits via law firms referral fees scam

Police & Prosecutors investigate lawyers for legal aid fraud. THE Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) has confirmed a number of solicitors are currently under investigation by Police Scotland for alleged legal aid fraud.

The admission by Legal Aid chiefs – via Freedom of Information legislation – comes after journalists received tip offs relating to “high value” long term investigations involving a number of law firms and solicitors chiefly in the west of Scotland.

And, all the solicitors who are under investigation by Police Scotland and the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) – are still working for law firms who are able to claim more public cash – despite substantive allegations they cheated taxpayers.

Information provided by SLAB in response to a Freedom of Information request reveals:

The first was on an employee of a firm of solicitors and the estimated value of the alleged irregularities was £1,065.55 and as outlined above the matter is with Police Scotland.

The second was in respect of six solicitors. The estimated value of the alleged irregularities is yet to be determined as again, a Police investigation remains on-going.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board also confirmed fourteen applicants for legal aid had been referred to the Crown Office.

In respect of claimants (legal aid applicants) the information requested is as follows:

There were 14 legal aid applicants referred to COPFS to consider prosecution with the estimated value of the alleged irregularities being £78,854.52 with £5,994.92 having been recovered.

One case was referred as an attempted fraud with an estimated value of the irregularity being £2,800 which is not recoverable.

COPFS have closed two cases; one by way of a Fiscal warning with the other having no proceedings being taken against them. The remaining 12 cases continue to be considered or progressed.

However, since SLAB confirmed the Police probes – information has come to light a number of solicitors who are now banned from the Legal Aid register and some  who have ‘voluntarily’ withdrawn after headline SLAB investigations – are still profiteering from legal aid cash.

The claims come as Scotland’s legal profession – led by the Law Society of Scotland – plot a strategy to resist ex Finance Secretary John Swinney’s announced cuts to the Legal Aid budget – which has soared to over £150 million a year – resulting in Scottish lawyers handed over £1.2 billion of public cash since the financial crash of 2008.

Enquiries by the media have also uncovered a new type of legal aid scam – whereby lawyers who currently cannot claim legal aid due to previous instances of defrauding the public purse – are now receiving hefty payments in the form of large referral fees from other local law firms they pass on civil & criminal clients.

The law firms who gain extra legal aid business from former legal aid solicitors – are suspected of inflating their own legal aid claims to cover referral fees paid to the referring solicitor.

One client – who did not wish to be identified – told journalists how his solicitor – already named in the media in relation to legal aid irregularities – passed on a civil damages claim against a West of Scotland local authority to another firm of solicitors in the same area.

The client later became aware an arrangement had been made by the second law firm for referral fees to be provided to the original solicitor.

The claimant was told if any problem arose or he was asked questions, he was to reply by stating his original solicitor was kept on in the case as his office was closer in terms of accessibility.

The client – who’s claim is being funded by civil legal aid – told journalists he was asked to go to three consultations with his original solicitor – all of which were suddenly cancelled at the last minute.

However, the client was asked to go to his new legal representatives for a consultation where his second lawyer claimed ‘valuable information had been learned from the consultations’ – which never took place.

Material which has emerged in relation to this case suggests the non-existent consultations – have since been charged up to legal aid.

A number of similar cases have since been identified involving the same solicitor who is now ‘de-registered’ from the Legal Aid register – potentially costing taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds in inflated legal aid claims designed to channel payments back from law firms still on the legal aid register – to the referring solicitor.

Most of the cases so far uncovered appear to involve small to medium sized civil claims against housing agencies, public bodies including health, local authorities and some private businesses.

Speaking to journalists, an individual who formerly specialised in complex financial investigations of law firms said the scale of fraud involving inflated legal aid claims being used to provide referral fees to de-registered and ‘non legal aid solicitors’ “is substantial” and “difficult to get to grips with”.

The individual also gave an account of a case where he alleged financial documents had been removed – under audit powers – from a law firm currently implicated in a multi million pound mortgage fraud racket – to shield a well known solicitor who formerly held high office at the Law Society of Scotland.

It is unknown if the Crown Office or Police Scotland have requested sight of the material from the legal profession’s regulator.

LAWYERS AVOID LEGAL AID RAPS:

A previous investigation by DOI into the lack of prosecutions by the Crown Office revealed fourteen cases were sent to prosecutors, with not one case going to court.

One solicitor even registered a plea of “insanity” to avoid being prosecuted for legal aid fraud.

Since the start of 2005, SLAB has submitted nine reports to Crown Office alleging criminal offences by a total of thirteen solicitors. One report related to a firm of five solicitors;

The allegations relating to eleven of these solicitors were marked for no action on the basis of an insufficiency of evidence. This related to seven separate reports (for which Crown Counsel’s Instructions were obtained in three)

A report relating to one of the eleven solicitors referred to above was referred to the Civil Recovery Unit for their consideration;

One solicitor died before criminal proceedings were commenced;

One solicitor was placed on indictment for Sheriff and Jury proceedings for fraud. That solicitor entered a preliminary plea in bar of trial on the grounds of insanity which was sustained by the Court.  In light of that decision, the case was deserted pro loco et tempore; and

In relation to the final solicitor, the matter remains under consideration.

Further reporting on the lack of prosecutions was reported in the Sunday Mail newspaper and by DOI can be found here: FOURTEEN lawyers accused of multi-million pound legal aid fraud escape justice as Scotland’s Crown Office fail to prosecute all cases in 5 years

 

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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

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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LEGAL RAIDERS: Law Society sent 19,000 emails to MSPs in lobbying effort to protect £150 million a year legal aid payments to lawyers & criminal fraternity – ‘regardless of cost to society’

Law Society launches campaign to protect £1m legal aid pay-outs to crooks. ON THE day Scotland elected a minority SNP Government, the Law Society of Scotland has revealed it organised a ‘19,000 plus’ email lobbying effort targeted at candidates in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections – aimed at ‘protecting’ over £150m a year in legal aid public cash hand-outs to lawyers.

The campaign – organised under the guise of ‘access to justice for all’ – criticises recent cuts in the huge Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) budget – which has seen a staggering £1.2 billion of taxpayers cash paid out to lawyers and their criminal clients since the financial crash of 2008.

As part of the campaign, the Law Society said it had encouraged both solicitors and members of the public to contact their candidates for the Scottish Parliament elections to ask them to support access to justice, along with a twitter campaign with the hashtag #defendlegalaid””.

Material published by the Law Society states: “over 450 people have written to their candidates in the Scottish Parliament election asking them to #defendlegalaid.”

“Over 19,000 emails have been sent to candidates”

“Candidates in over 70 constituencies have been contacted as part of the campaign”

“Candidates from eight political parties, as well as independents, have pledged to #defendlegalaid on social media”

Alongside a document titled  Legal Assistance in Scotland fit for 21st Century, the Law Society launched a PR video in an attempt to persuade the public to support a drive to hand out millions more in public cash to lawyers.

The Law Society campaign strategy also includes ‘ research’ commissioned during 2013 from polling organisation Ipsos Mori  – which claims “there is strong public support for legal aid.”

The Law Society ‘research’ claims “81% of the public agreeing legal aid is a price worth paying to ensure a fair society, regardless of its cost.”

Further research was carried out with lawyers during 2015 – coming just after it was revealed the Law Society had rigged a client satisfaction survey, publishing spurious claims of high client satisfaction with Scottish solicitors across several media outlets – the articles authored by the Law Society’s own President.

The 2015 survey of the legal profession claims to indicate 78% of solicitors surveyed believed “Scottish Government policy on legal aid risked undermining access to justice for the poorest in society”, with 77% of lawyers in the survey allegedly demanding an increase in legal aid rates.

Commenting on the latest campaign against legal aid cuts, Christine McLintock, President of the Law Society of Scotland said: “We recognise that like all public sector funding, the justice budget is under significant pressure. However legal aid funding is quite simply the cost of access to justice for those in need.

Ms McLintock continued: “Access to justice is an essential element of a fair and democratic society and we have highlighted it as one of one of our key priorities for this year’s Scottish election. Providing access to quality legal advice and representation for people, regardless of their financial means, helps tackle inequality, encourages early resolution of problems, and protects fundamental rights.

“While our legal aid system is designed to meet costs on a case-by-case basis, there are fees for particular types of work which were set in 1992 and have not been revised.

Christine McLintock attacked the cuts to the legal aid budget, saying : “The legal aid budget was reduced from £161.4m in 2010/2011 to £138m in 2014/15. The target budget for 2016/17 is £126.4m – more than a £10 million reduction – and is less in cash terms than 20 years ago which, accounting for inflation, represents around a 50% cut in real terms over those two decades.

“This is causing enormous challenges – already there are areas of the country where there are not enough solicitors providing civil legal aid to meet demand, because practitioners just can’t afford to take it on.”

However, it has previously emerged during media investigations solicitors have got off the hook from multiple cases involving legal aid fraud & millions of pounds of public cash,

in one media investigation, it was revealed Fourteen lawyers accused of defrauding millions of pounds of legal aid public cash escaped prosecution after Scotland’s Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) refused to prosecute any of the cases reported to prosecutors by the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

In another case brought to light by the media – Niels S Lockhart – a Kilmarnock based solicitor took over £600,000 of legal aid cash in just two years – and even when allegations of dodgy claims were reported to the Law Society an investigation by the Scottish Legal Aid Board – the Law Society of Scotland failed to act.

It emerged last summer the same solicitor – Niels S Lockhart – ended up demanding more legal aid cash even after being barred from the legal aid register – reported here: 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

LEGAL AID – How criminals & legal fraternity pocket £150 million a year of YOUR MONEY:

LEGAL RAID: FRAUDSTER’S TRIAL HANDOUT

Scandal of £11m crook who lived high life on stolen cash …& WE pay his £769k law bills

EXCLUSIVE by Russell Findlay Scottish Sun 12 July 2015

A FRAUDSTER who flew in private jets and lit cigarettes with burning £50 notes was handed £769,000 in legal aid.

Michael Voudouri cheated taxpayers out of millions of pounds through a VAT scam.

But we can reveal the public picked up the massive legal bill for the criminal, who was jailed for 11 1/2 years.

Labour’s legal affairs spokeswoman Elaine Murray said: “It’s shocking that a crook who has defrauded the public purse should get hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal aid.

“Ordinary people on low incomes struggle to get legal aid while someone who has stolen millions in VAT fraud gets a six figure sum.”

Voudouri, 47, was found guilty in 2012 of laundering £11.5million from a massive VAT fraud.

The wealthy crook, who lived in a £1.5million mansion in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire and hired Katie Price and Chris Eubank for personal appearances, is not the first to get legal aid.

We told how Barry Hughes and his wife Jackie jetted off on a £50,000 trip to Dubai weeks after taxpayers covered their £175,000 court battle bills.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board said a “financial eligibility test” was carried out in each case.

SCOTTISH JUSTICE IN THE DOCK : Scotland’s lawyers earn more from Legal Aid than whole of Italy, shock report reveals

By Russell Findlay Sunday Mail 30 September 2012

THE European Commission report reveals that Legal Aid in Scotland cost 203million euros (£161million) in 2010 – more than in Italy, which has a population of 61million.

SCOTS lawyers collected more taxpayers’ cash for Legal Aid than their counterparts in Italy – a country 12 times the size.

A European Commission report reveals that Legal Aid in Scotland cost 203million euros (£161million) in 2010 – around 39 euros, or £31, for every one of our 5.2million people.

Lawyers in Italy, which has a population of 61million, got just £100million of public cash – £1.50 per person.

The 450-page Brussels report also found that Denmark, with 5.6million people, paid its lawyers only 88million euros (£70million).

And in Belgium – population 10.9million – legal aid cost 75million euros (£59million).

The revelations, in a 450-page report by the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice – came as the Scottish Legal Aid Board banned three lawyers from claiming cash for criminal cases.

We can reveal that Gerard Tierney, Massimo D’Alvito and Andrew Brophy, of Blantyre, Lanarkshire, breached the board’s code of practice. Tierney and D’Alvito have been reported to the Crown Office, who will decide whether to prosecute.

The ban also extends to Tierney’s firm G Tierney & Co, of Auchinleck, Ayrshire, who have raked in £610,500 in Legal Aid over three years, and Edinburgh firm Massimo D’Alvito Defence Lawyers.

The European report looked at 47 criminal justice systems across the continent.

It found the cost per person of Legal Aid in Scotland was third-highest – behind only Northern Ireland and England and Wales. The cost per person was 53.5 euros in Northern Ireland and 45.7 euros in England and Wales.

The findings led to calls for a radical overhaul of Legal Aid.

Central Ayrshire Labour MP Brian Donohoe said: “It seems major organised criminals and terror suspects qualify for unlimited Legal Aid, yet I have constituents who don’t get a penny simply because they have a few thousand pounds of savings.

“The system in Scotland and the rest of the UK is out of control.”

Legal blogger Peter Cherbi added: “Legal Aid is no longer about access to justice for the poor, but a state subsidy for the legal profession – and one they don’t seem keen on talking about.”

The Sunday Mail has exposed a series of rogue lawyers banned from claiming Legal Aid. But none of the 14 reported to prosecutors was put in the dock, prompting claims that Scotland’s legal self-regulation system protects lawyers.

Kilmarnock solicitor Niels Lockhart, who took £600,000 in Legal Aid in just two years, was found to have made “unnecessary and excessive” claims. The Legal Aid board withdrew their complaint to the Law Society after he agreed to stop claiming.

Reacting to the Brussels report, the Scottish Legal Aid Board said: “Across Europe, there are substantial differences between judicial systems and very different approaches to the provision of legal aid and its cost.

“The Scottish system is highly regarded internationally for the efforts made to ensure access to justice.

“The Scottish Government’s budget allocation for the Legal Aid Fund has reduced significantly in 2011-12 and is planned to reduce further in future years.”

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill hopes to cut the Legal Aid bill by making criminals pay some of their costs. The planned move, outlined in a Holyrood Bill, could save taxpayers around £3.9million.

• The Euro study showed that Scotland disciplined a tiny number of lawyers compared to countries of similar size.

Just three were struck off and 13 reprimanded in Scotland in 2010.

Denmark, with a similar population, took action against 309 lawyers, with six struck off and 145 fined. And in Finland, also close in size, 99 rogue solicitors were sanctioned.

Critics blame the Law Society of Scotland’s dual role of representing lawyers while also acting as regulator.

• A large proportion of alleged criminals reported to prosecutors in Scotland are not being put in the dock.

Of 265,830 cases sent to the Crown Office, only 41.7 per cent were brought to court. In England and Wales, 90.6 per cent of all cases resulted in court action.

The difference is thought to be partly due to Scotland’s recent introduction of spot fines and fiscal fines for what the authorities insist are more minor offences.

Critics claim such fines lead to a secret justice system.

• The report reveals that Scotland’s sheriffs top the European pay league.

Researchers compared the wages of lower court judges across Europe.

Our sheriffs, with an average salary of 150,106 euros (£120,000), were number one, ahead of the Irish and Swiss.

Next were sheriffs’ counterparts in England and Wales, who were paid 120,998 euros (£95,000).

Not only were sheriffs the highest-paid, they also topped the table comparing their earnings to the national average. They earned 5.2 times the average Scot’s wage.

EU Investigation on Legal Aid in Scotland: SCOTTISH JUSTICE IN THE DOCK : Scotland’s lawyers earn more from Legal Aid than whole of Italy, shock report reveals

The Euro study showed that Scotland disciplined a tiny number of lawyers compared to countries of similar size. Just three were struck off and 13 reprimanded in Scotland in 2010. Denmark, with a similar population, took action against 309 lawyers, with six struck off and 145 fined. And in Finland, also close in size, 99 rogue solicitors were sanctioned. Critics blame the Law Society of Scotland’s dual role of representing lawyers while also acting as regulator.

A large proportion of alleged criminals reported to prosecutors in Scotland are not being put in the dock. Of 265,830 cases sent to the Crown Office, only 41.7 per cent were brought to court. In England and Wales, 90.6 per cent of all cases resulted in court action.

The difference is thought to be partly due to Scotland’s recent introduction of spot fines and fiscal fines for what the authorities insist are more minor offences. Critics claim such fines lead to a secret justice system.

The report reveals that Scotland’s sheriffs top the European pay league.

Our sheriffs, with an average salary of 150,106 euros (£120,000), were number one, ahead of the Irish and Swiss. Next were sheriffs’ counterparts in England and Wales, who were paid 120,998 euros (£95,000). Not only were sheriffs the highest-paid, they also topped the table comparing their earnings to the national average. They earned 5.2 times the average Scot’s wage.

 

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LEGAL BILLIONS: Law Society hits out at legal aid cuts as Scottish Legal Aid Board reveal lawyers received £138.6m public cash in 2014-15, making £1.2bn since 2008 financial crash

Billions in public cash keep ‘struggling’ lawyers afloat. SCOTLAND’S legal profession took home a staggering £138.6 million in public cash last year – for giving Scots access to justice – according to figures released by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) today.

However, the latest round of payments of public subsidies to struggling solicitors, down from last year’s £150.5 million and marked for a further reduction by Finance Secretary John Swinney to £126.1m in 2016 budget – sparked ire at the Law Society of Scotland who yesterday attacked the Finance Secretary’s legal aid reductions as “unrealistic”.

Figures provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board reveal Scotland’s legal profession have taken home over £1.2 billion in public cash since the great financial crash of 2008: 2014-2015: £138.6m, 2013-14 £150.5m, 2012-13 £150.2m, 2011-12 £150.7m, 2010-11 £161.4m, 2009-10 £150.5m, 2008-09 £150.2m, 2007-08 £155.1m, TOTAL: £1.207 Billion.

Commenting on the figures, the Scottish Legal Aid Board said “Services funded through the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) provided help during 2014-15 to tens of thousands of often vulnerable people across Scotland. Legal aid funding allowed people to access the services of private practice solicitors, SLAB’s employed solicitors, law centres, and over 100 grant funded projects.”

Legal Aid Big Spenders: See which law firms, Advocates & Solicitor Advocates took home Legal Aid millions in 2014-2015. Glasgow based law firm Livingstone Browne Solicitors remain the top-earning law firm, taking home legal aid payments of £1.9 million. Brian McConnachie QC is Scotland’s top legal aid earning advocate, receiving £303,000, Gordon Jackson QC earned £282,000 and third highest earner is Donald Findlay OQ on £258,600.The top legal aid earning solicitor advocate was Iain Paterson of Paterson Bell solicitors – who received £267,200 of public cash for legal services.

The total cost to the taxpayer of legal assistance in Scotland was £138.6 million in 2014-15, a decrease of 8% compared to the previous year. This £11.9m decrease is partly due to changes in the flow of criminal cases through the justice system in 2014-15. However, 2014-15 also saw falling applications and grants of summary criminal and civil legal assistance, offset partly by a slight increase in solemn criminal legal aid and continued growth in children’s legal assistance.

Colin Lancaster, Chief Executive of SLAB, said: “Over the last year, legal aid has again helped people across the country, many of them on low incomes and with caring responsibilities, defend themselves against criminal charges or deal with their problems on debt, housing, mental health or family breakdown.

“Publicly funded legal assistance helps people to resolve the problems they encounter in day to day life by pursuing or defending their rights and as such it makes a vital contribution to tackling inequalities in Scotland.

“The fall in expenditure in 2014-15 is not a signal that the financial challenges are over or that the legal aid system doesn’t need further reform and streamlining.

“The impact of the UK Spending Review means that significant further changes are needed to meet the Scottish Government’s budget allocation for legal aid. While the legal aid fund is demand led, and no-one who is eligible will be refused legal aid, expenditure savings will need to be found.

“Access to justice can only be maintained in the face of these financial challenges by working collaboratively with those interested in protecting the vulnerable through a legal aid system that is broad in scope and encourages a strategic approach to meeting needs. I look forward to doing so over the coming months.”

Iain A Robertson CBE, Chairman of SLAB, said: “Although we have seen the general demand for legal assistance fall again in 2014-15, the funds available to manage public finances are also falling. The need to reduce expenditure on legal aid has not gone away, and will increase.

“We will work collaboratively with others in the justice sector to deliver improvements that will enable further reductions in legal aid expenditure, including by streamlining the legal aid system where possible.

“It is imperative that discussions on reforms are approached strategically and in the context of the justice system as a whole, to protect the best interests of those in need of support from the legal aid system. Otherwise Scotland risks its proud record on maintaining access to justice.”

Key points of the Scottish Legal Aid Board 2014-15 annual report:

    Total expenditure on the Legal Aid Fund in 2014-15 fell by 8% to £138.6 million compared to the previous year. The 2013-14 figure was £150.5 million.
SLAB assessed 212,000 applications for legal aid and paid 241,000 accounts of solicitors and counsel.
SLAB managed three grant funding programmes, which enabled support for 108 projects around Scotland. The projects helped nearly 27,000 new clients. SLAB grant funding also contributed to a new Scottish Women’s Rights Centre which helps women experiencing gender based violence.
SLAB processed all application and account types within its headline performance indicators.
SLAB reduced the average number of working days it takes to process civil legal aid applications by six working days. It also reduced the average number of working days to making a payment on an account by six working days.
Expenditure on criminal legal assistance fell by 10% compared to the previous year, from £94.0 million to £85.0 million.
Net expenditure on civil legal assistance was £43.9 million, a fall of 8% compared to the previous year from £47.7m. There has been a fall in the take-up of advice and representation in civil matters.
Children’s legal assistance (legal aid and ABWOR) cost £5.2 million, an increase of 7% compared to the previous year, from £4.9 million.
Gross expenditure on grant funded projects was £6.3 million which increased from £5.5 million as a result of the Scottish Government and Money Advice Service providing extra funding for an extended programme.
Payments to solicitors totalled £107.7 million, advocates £11.9 million and solicitor advocates £3.0 million.
Payments on outlays (e.g. expert witnesses and court reports) fell by 8% compared to the previous year, from £19.5 million to £17.9 million.
Grants of all types of criminal legal assistance have fallen compared to the previous year, apart from a small rise of 1.2% in grants of solemn criminal legal aid. This reflects a longer term trend of declining summary court business.
Grants of civil legal assistance have fallen by 9.5% compared to the previous year. Demand has fallen due to the easing of pressures stemming from the economic situation. The largest volume year-on-year falls were in cases with subject matters of contact, separation and divorce. All these areas have been steadily declining for the past few years.
Legal aid grants in relation to intervention orders and guardianship orders under Part 6 of the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 now represent the largest category of legal aid certificates issued at 28% of all grants. Grants of this nature rose 19% in 2014-15 compared to the previous year.
Grants of children’s legal assistance continue to be affected by the changes that came into force on 24 June 2013 that extended the scope and availability of legal assistance for children’s hearings. It is still too early to establish a proper comparison in volumes between years.

Responding to cuts in Legal Aid, and the Scottish Government’s Draft Budget for 2016-17, announced yesterday, Christine McLintock, President of the Law Society of Scotland, made the following statement to legal aid practitioners: “The 2016-17 budget allocation for the legal aid fund has been set at £126.1 million, the lowest it has been for well over a decade. This is a reduction from the 2015-16 budget of over 7% (from £136.1 million to £126.1 million).

“Legal aid spending is demand led and not limited by the budget and so we would expect the Scottish Government to continue to meet all its obligations in terms of demand for legal aid over the coming year. However, as you are aware, through its savings initiatives, the Government tries to reduce expenditure to meet the budget allocation.

“The Scottish Government has set the financial target for 2016-17 at a level that:

Is lower, in cash terms, than levels of legal aid expenditure from over 20 years ago (in 1994/95 the total expenditure on legal assistance was £132.1 million).

Is clearly unrealistic if you are trying to maintain an effective and sustainable legal aid system. Given existing figures, in order to reach its target, the Government would need to cut expenditure by at least £10 million by 2016-17. We do not see how this can possibly be achieved without seriously damaging both access to justice and the justice system.”

Investigation on Legal Aid in Scotland: SCOTTISH JUSTICE IN THE DOCK : Scotland’s lawyers earn more from Legal Aid than whole of Italy, shock report reveals

The Euro study showed that Scotland disciplined a tiny number of lawyers compared to countries of similar size. Just three were struck off and 13 reprimanded in Scotland in 2010. Denmark, with a similar population, took action against 309 lawyers, with six struck off and 145 fined. And in Finland, also close in size, 99 rogue solicitors were sanctioned. Critics blame the Law Society of Scotland’s dual role of representing lawyers while also acting as regulator.

A large proportion of alleged criminals reported to prosecutors in Scotland are not being put in the dock. Of 265,830 cases sent to the Crown Office, only 41.7 per cent were brought to court. In England and Wales, 90.6 per cent of all cases resulted in court action.

The difference is thought to be partly due to Scotland’s recent introduction of spot fines and fiscal fines for what the authorities insist are more minor offences. Critics claim such fines lead to a secret justice system.

The report reveals that Scotland’s sheriffs top the European pay league.

Our sheriffs, with an average salary of 150,106 euros (£120,000), were number one, ahead of the Irish and Swiss. Next were sheriffs’ counterparts in England and Wales, who were paid 120,998 euros (£95,000). Not only were sheriffs the highest-paid, they also topped the table comparing their earnings to the national average. They earned 5.2 times the average Scot’s wage.

 

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ACT OF FRAUD: Files reveal how law chiefs battled to recover £1.8m legal aid cash from estate of suicide lawyer as new questions emerge over ability of Crown Office to pursue legal aid cheat lawyers

£150m annual legal aid bill ‘a fraud target’ DOCUMENTS revealing how an agreement was eventually secured by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) & Civil Recovery Unit of the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) to recover £1.8million in fraudulently claimed legal aid have been released by Legal Aid chiefs.

The case of Scotland’s largest legal aid fraud – masterminded by solicitor James Muir who committed suicide in 2005 while under investigation for making multiple & fraudulent claims for publicly funded legal aid – echoes forward to 2015 as the annual legal aid bill of £150 million becomes an ever increasing target for scammers & fraudsters both inside & outside the legal profession.

A minute of agreement archived at the Registers of Scotland and released by SLAB in response to a Freedom of Information request tells the tale of how the stolen public funds were eventually paid back by Muir’s former law firm and his window – Susan Muir – who was a serving Police Officer at the time.

The agreement was signed in September 2007 – two years after Mr Muir committed suicide.

The document describes how Muir’s former law firm – Messrs Sneddon Morrison Solicitors (formerly Sneddons SSC) would repay £259,941,70 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board, and £87,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit of the Crown Office.

Susan Muir, the widow of James Muir, agreed to repay £519,061.84 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board and then a further £884,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit from the sale of a property in Bothwell.

One of the witnesses to the agreement is William Macreath – head of Glasgow based law firm Levy & Mcrae. At the time, and currently, the same law firm represent the Legal Defence Union and the Scottish Police Federation.

Currently, Levy & Mcrae are battling a multi million pound writ lodged against them in connection with allegations over their role in the collapse of Heather Capital,a £400million hedge fund.

However, while the two year effort to recover the fraudulently claimed legal aid and it’s ‘eventual’ repayment was championed by SLAB and the Crown Office at the time, there are questions now as to why the Lord Advocate has not used similar methods to recover millions more in public cash from other lawyers who have also been accused of making dodgy legal aid claims.

Since 2007, numerous solicitors accused of making false or fraudulent legal aid claims have featured in media headlines.

In April 2011 a Sunday Mail newspaper investigation revealed Kilmarnock solicitor Niels S Lockhart had claimed at least £600,000 of taxpayers’ money in just two years.

A Report to the Law Society of Scotland Section 31, Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986: Niels S Lockhart released by the Scottish Legal Aid Board to the media – accused Lockhart of deliberately ramping up his claims.

After Lockhart ignored a warning from SLAB 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 of Scotland who also decided no fraud had taken place.

A further investigation by Sunday Mail newspaper in 2011 established that fourteen solicitors accused of making fraudulent legal aid claims escaped prosecution by the Crown Office.

However, unlike in the James Muir case, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Crown Office appear to have made no attempts whatsoever to recover public funds in the additional cases –  which could potentially total millions of pounds.

The documents, provided by the Scottish Legal Aid Board in response to an FOI request along with a statement of SLAB’s investigation of James Muir and subsequent events including the eventual recovery of the fraudulently claimed legal aid funds are published, with signatures & addresses redacted, below:

Statement from the Scottish Legal Aid Board:

The firm of James H G Muir SSC was subject to investigation by the Board’s Compliance and Solicitor Investigation unit from November 2004. The firm was identified through the Board’s on-going programme of monitoring and investigating of legal aid expenditure.

Issues were identified from an analysis of expenditure, and investigation work on the profile of applications received and accounts submitted for payment in respect of Children’s cases by the firm. Theses issues included the persistently high cost of cases, the nature of the subject matter, the content of material submitted with accounts, as well as inconsistencies between the personal details of children on applications submitted and the same information included with the accounts. These aspects, together with discrepancies in information submitted by Mr Muir subsequently cross-checked with third parties such as the Scottish Court Service and Scottish Children Reporter Agency, caused sufficient concern for the Board to contact the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (“COPFS”) in February 2005. COPFS in turn instructed Strathclyde Police to investigate the matter.

Mr Muir died on 20 April 2005. The criminal section of the Crown Office could not carry out in further investigative work as, with the death of Mr Muir, there could be no prosecution of any party. Mr Muir’s death also presented a number of matters that required to be resolved. These included the ingathering of the Estate, the involvement of the Civil Recovery unit and the work of forensic accountants in establishing any ‘dirty money’ streams to assets.

The CRU worked to preserve and identify assets, while the Board sought to establish the extent of any fraudulent activities and charges made by Mr Muir. This work not only involved investigating Mr Muir’s firm, which was established in 2001, but also required us to consider his activities when he was a Partner with his previous firm, Sneddon Morrison.

Once the extent of the fraud, the most serious ever uncovered by the Board, was established at £1,8m, it was then a matter to secure the recovery of the sums from both the estate of the late Mr Muir and in addition the firm of Sneddon Morrison. It was established that the partners and staff of Sneddon Morrison were not involved in the fraudulent scheme carried out by Mr Muir when a partner, but the firm did benefit from the fraudulent payments and consequently were required to repay these sums, which they did.

A considerable amount of analysis, enquiry and investigation was dedicated to this case. Work had to be done to demonstrate to all relevant parties that Mr Muir had indeed perpetuated a fraudulent scheme on the Board over several years, and in respect of the Proceeds of Crime all the defrauded sums had to be repaid. This was achieved without having to resort to costly and lengthy court proceedings, although this was a course of action the Board and the Civil Recovery Unit would have taken, and had been ready to take, had it proved necessary.

A Minute of Agreement was signed and lodged in September 2007 and thereafter the defrauded sums were repaid which includes the £812,827 paid to the Board as detailed above.

As you will appreciate the period from the initial enquiry in 2004 to the final recovery of fraudulently claimed funds in 2007 involved considerable time and a number of Board staff dedicated to investigate this matter adequately. Initially the focus was on Mr Muir’s own firm but as the enquiry widened other cases in respect of Accounts paid to Sneddon Morrison were also considered. Much of 2005 was devoted to the retrieval of information and during this time the Board liaised closely with the Civil Recovery Unit to ensure all assets were identified and all sums that could be classified as fraudulently claimed were repaid.

It is of course a matter of regret that Mr Muir died during the investigation but consequently the nature of the enquiry changed from one in respect of fraud to recovery.

It took some months for the Board to establish the extent of the fraud as it did for the Executor of the late Mr Muir’s estate to in-gather sums and to realise assets: this meant that work on this case continued throughout 2006. The Board and the Civil Recovery Unit agreed figures for repayment from both the Estate and the Partners of Sneddon Morrison, and this process of negotiation—which took some months and active involvement of the Board’s senior management—was successfully concluded in 2007 when the fraudulent sums were finally repaid.

The fraud was initially identified as a result of the Board’s implementing a new process for internal review of Legal Aid expenditure: that process highlighted the activities of Mr Muir. The Board has a proactive counter fraud culture. This includes the on-site audit of all firms and solicitor registered for Criminal Legal Assistance, an Accounts Verification Unit with access to the Scottish Court Service system to enable third party verification, a process that can also adopted in respect of the Scottish Prison Service and Police Offices. In addition there is an imbedded Analysis and Management Information unit within the Board that actively monitors trends in Legal Aid expenditure by firm and individual solicitors highlighting any changes or anomalies that require further clarification or enquiry.

The Agreement: MINUTE OF AGREEMENT between 

(1) THE SCOTTISH LEGAL AID BOARD, 44 Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh, EH3 7SW and

(2) THE CIVIL RECOVERY UNIT, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, 25 Chambers Street, Edinburgh and

(3) MESSRS SNEDDON MORRISON, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, a firm of solicitors having a place of business at Clydesdale Bank Chambers, 16 East Main Street, Whitburn, EH47 ORY and

(4) MRS SUSAN MUIR, and

(5) MRS SUSAN MUIR qua Executrix of the iate James Hamilton Gibb Muir SSC

Whereas the parties wish to resolve their dispute regarding the repayment of sums paid from the Scottish Legal Aid Fund to Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, and James Muir SSC, deceased, they have agreed as follows:

(1) Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, will pay the sum of £259,941,70 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board with immediate effect.

(2) Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, will make payment of the sum of £87,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, with immediate effect.

(3) Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, withdraw, waive and renounce any claim or right of relief which may lie against Mrs Susan Muir or the estate of the late James Muir, and further waive all claims for payment of any other sums which may be due to the firm of Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, from Mrs Susan Muir or the late James Muir or his estate by way of partnership accounting or any other reason.

(4) Mrs Susan Muir qua Executrix will make payment of the sum of £519,061.84 to the Scottish Legal Aid Board as soon as reasonably practicable, and no later than 2 months from the date of signing this agreement. . /

(5) Susan Muir-will arrange for the dwellinghouse to be marketed for sale within 1 month of the date of this agreement, in the event that such steps have not already been initiated by her prior to signature of this agreement.

(6) Susan Muir will make payment of the sum of £884,000 to the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, from the free proceeds of the sale of that dwellinghouse and from monies within her late husband’s estate being the balance after payment of those sums identified as payable to the Scottish Legal Aid Board and from monies within such accounts and/or other investments as are directly related to savings or investments from the late Mr Muir’s earnings from the Scottish Legal Aid Fund. Where any portion of that sum is derived from.the free proceeds of sale of the dwellinghouse, payment of that portion will be made within 4 months of the date of signing this agreement. Where any portion of that sum is derived from any other sources, payment will be made within 2 months of the date of signing this agreement.

(7) Susan Muir, as an individual and qua executrix withdraws, waives and renounces any claim or right of relief which may lie against the firm of Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, and the whole partners thereof.

(8) All payments made under this agreement are net of VAT, and any refund of VAT made to either Messrs Sneddon Morrison, Solicitors, formerly Sneddons SSC, or Susan Muir, qua executrix or otherwise, in respect of the payments which are the subject of this agreement, shall be paid to the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Any refund of Income Tax made to Susan Muir, qua executrix or otherwise, in respect of the payments which are the subject of this agreement, shall be paid to the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

­(9) The Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, discharge the parties to this agreement of the respective claims against said parties upon payment in full of all sums due to them in terms of clauses 1, 2, 4 and 6 by those parties under this agreement.

(10) The above agreement is without prejudice to the right of the Scottish Legal Aid Board and the Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, to initiate appropriate proceedings in the event that any party fails to make payment as agreed upon.

(11) The Scottish Legal Aid Board by Tom Crighton Murray, Director of Legal Services and Applications, at Edinburgh on the Seventh day of September Two Thousand and Seven; and they are signed on behalf of the said Civil Recovery Unit, on behalf of the Scottish Ministers, by Lorna Hams, Head of the Civil Recovery Unit, at Edinburgh on the Seventh day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of Claire Meikle, witness, of Victoria Quay, Edinburgh; and they are signed on behalf of the said Messrs Sneddon Morrison, SSC, by Roy Donald Lumsden, Eric Robert Lumsden, David Andrew Johnstone and James Morrison, four of their partners, and the said James Morrison has adhibited the firm name of Sneddon Morrison & Co, all at Whitburn, West Lothian on the Fourth day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of Graeme Alexander Laird, witness, of West Main Street, Whitburn; and they are signed by the said Susan Muir, as an individual, at Glasgow on the Sixth day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of William Couperthwaite Macreath, witness, of 266 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, G2 5RL; and they are signed by the said Susan Muir, qua Executrix of the late James Hamilton Gibb Muir SSC, at Glasgow on the Sixth day of September Two Thousand and Seven in the presence of William Couperthwaite Macreath, witness, of 266 St Vincent Street, Glasgow, G2 5RL.

Further reports & investigations on Legal Aid Fraud can be read here: Legal Aid Fraud – Prosecutors & Legal Aid Chiefs operate inconsistent policy on pursuing legal aid cheats

 

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SCOTS LAW PLC: Reality Check – Public cash bankrolls profits of ‘top name’ Scots law firms as Scottish Government award £44m contracts to nine legal service providers

Public cash – the ‘food bank’ for Scots law firms IN ADDITION to £1 billion provided in legal aid public cash handed over to lawyers since the financial crash of 2008, and hundreds of millions more taken by law firms from Scots local authorities & public bodies, the Scottish Government this week awarded an extra £44 million in public funds to nine private law firms to provide a range of services from litigation to debt recovery.

The four year Framework Agreement for the Provision of Legal Services contract, now a regular event and previously covered here in 2011: ScotGov legal services contracts link to law firm hospitality also reveals the soaring cost of the contract to taxpayers, now standing at £44 million in 2015, an increase of £24 million from 2011 when the contract was a mere £20 million.

And, as reported in 2011, again, law firms who feature in the latest list of winning bidders coincidentally also appear in lists of hospitality given to key civil servants who head the Scottish Government’s legal departments.

Among the firms to win large hand outs from taxpayers are Brodies LLP, who received free airtime earlier this week for ramping up their profits to £57.9 million.

However, publicity relating to the high profits notably failed to mention the very same law firm – Brodies – like so many others in the list of ScotGov legal provider contract winners – serve numerous Scottish local authorities and a host of Scottish public bodies – collectively earning millions more from the public purse for doing so.

The latest round of extra work for hard up ‘top notch’ Scots law firms on the taxpayer ticket comes on top of figures released by the Scottish Government in response to a Freedom of Information request which reveal a further £9 million (£9,043,617) was spent in the past year by the Scottish Government on 137 lawyers & staff employed at the Scottish Government Legal Directorate, Legal Secretariat to the Lord Advocate  and Parliamentary Counsel Office.

The tender process for latest round of provision of legal services to the Scottish Government – launched a year ago, was run by the Scottish Procurement and Commercial Directorate with the finalised framework available to over one hundred public bodies in Scotland, including NHS organisations, fire and rescue services, the Scottish police authority and the equality and human rights commission.

The former panel was renewed in 2011 and included eleven firms, namely Anderson Strathern; Biggart Baillie; Brodies; DLA Piper; Dundas & Wilson (now CMS); Harper Macleod; Ledingham Chalmers; Maclay Murray & Spens; MacRoberts; Morton Fraser and Pinsent Masons.

The current framework comprises:

Lot 1 – Value £3.6 million: Contracts, Commercial and Corporate: Anderson Strathern, Harper Macleod, MacRoberts, Morton Fraser and Thorntons

Lot 2 – Value £10 million: Debt Recovery: Anderson Strathern, Brodies, Harper MacLeod, Morton Fraser and Thorntons

Lot 3 – Value £10.8 million: Litigation, Reparation, Employment and Inquiries: Anderson Strathern, Brodies, Harper MacLeod, Morton Fraser and Weightmans

Lot 4 – value £8.8 Million: Major Projects: Anderson Strathern, Brodies, DWF, Harper MacLeod and MacRoberts

Lot 5 – Value £6.8 million: Property and Related Matters: Anderson Strathern, DLA Piper, Harper MacLeod, Morton Fraser and Thorntons

Lot 6 – Value £4 million: One Stop Shop: Anderson Strathern, Brodies, Harper MacLeod, Morton Fraser and Thorntons

 

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