Law Society seems to prevent criminal prosecutions for solicitors legal aid fraud. The extraordinary world of legal aid fraud is once again in the news, as the latest annual report from the Scottish Legal Aid Board reveals that lawyers have been forced to repay some £1.6 million in ‘wrongly claimed’ legal aid funds over the past six years. While it appears much of that ‘wrongly claimed legal aid’ may be ‘fraudulently claimed legal aid’, there doesn't appear to be any solicitor who has gained a criminal record for legal aid fraud.
There is an easy answer to why there are no solicitors with criminal records for fraudulently claiming legal aid. That answer lies with the Law Society of Scotland and the ever so corrupt regulatory system which ensures that while clients who fraudulently claim legal aid will obviously end up in court, and end up with a criminal record if found guilty, the odds are that any solicitor who defrauds the taxpayer by making false legal aid claims, will only face his colleagues in the closed shop world of the Law Society’s regulatory structure .. in short, getting a slap on the wrist for a financial fraud well deserving of a criminal conviction.
Philip Yelland, Law Society Director of Standards.The Law Society don’t have a press release up on their website today, but Philip Yelland, who has went from being Director of Client Relations in the early 1990s to the current Director of Standards at the Law Society said “"Any matters referred to us by SLAB follow the society's procedures for dealing with complaints. "We have a robust investigation process which can lead to the society considering disciplinary action, which may involve prosecution before the independent Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal. "The tribunal, which has different powers to those of the courts, can impose various sanctions from a censure to striking a solicitor from the roll, banning them from practice."
However despite Mr Yelland’s claim of robust procedures, and headlines of lawyers fleecing the system for their own ends, there has been not one single case in Scotland in which a solicitor has been convicted in a criminal court of legal aid fraud. It transpires that only two solicitors have ever been fined following prosecution by the Law Society before the ‘rubber stamp’ Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – fines which usually occur in order to prevent any real prosecution of offenders taking place and allowing the legal profession to keep the matter ‘in house’ where members of the public of course must face the full weight of the law & criminal justice.
Here are previous articles I have written relating to media exposes of solicitors committing legal aid fraud : Lawyer caught in media sting bribing clients to defraud Legal Aid Board - the tip of an iceberg &
Legal Aid Board manages to trumpet client prosecutions for fraud but no prosecutions against lawyers. This rather amazing lack of any criminal prosecutions against solicitors for legal aid fraud contrasts sharply with prosecutions against legal aid claimants, where obviously there are individuals who have been prosecuted & found guilty of fraudulently claiming legal aid, and the report from SLAB wastes no time in trumpeting convictions against members of the public for fraudulent legal aid claims, while giving no real reasons why solicitors too had not been prosecuted in the criminal courts.
SLAB’s records show that : “Mr A Failed to tell us of his interest in two properties other than his main residence. He was found guilty of fraud and ordered to complete 250 hours of community service.
Mr G told us he was only earning £67 a week – this was on the advice of a “friend” who told him that this would mean that he would get legal aid. Our enquiries revealed his net earnings were £211 a week. He was found guilty of fraud, fined £100 and ordered to repay us his legal costs.
Mr D told us that his only source of income was benefit. Our enquiries revealed that he was living with a partner who was employed and whose income should have been declared to the Board. He was found guilty of fraud and fined £200.
All three now have criminal records”
Fine .. but why no criminal prosecutions and criminal records for crooked lawyers defrauding legal aid ? Obviously its going on …
Legal Aid Board investigates lawyers, doesn’t prosecute. SLAB’s rather different attitude on legal aid fraud regarding solicitors is expressed as follows : “Our investigations into fraud and abuse also pay for themselves many times over. In the last year, we have acted against several solicitors for abuses ranging from exaggerated claims for travel or charging for work carried out by unqualifed staff at solicitor rates, to false claims for attending court or tribunal hearings and fictitious meetings with clients.
This action results in us recovering significant sums from such solicitors, as well as ending activity that would otherwise continue unchecked. In total, the value of money recovered and future losses prevented came to an estimated £2 million.
This includes £812,000 recovered in the most serious fraud ever uncovered by the Board, in which a solicitor specialising in cases involving children defrauded the Legal Aid Fund over several years. The balance of £1 million was recovered by the Civil Recovery Unit of the Crown Office.”
We learned from the Scotsman report today that “In 2007-8 alone, 115 individual solicitors and firms were forced to pay back legal aid.”
So ? Where are the names & identities of these individual solicitors & legal firms who were forced to pay back legal aid ? What where the exact reasons in each particular case which necessitated the repayments ? Why no criminal prosecutions after all the investigations ?
It has to be said it is rather odd, after reading SLAB’s spin on its investigations into the legal profession itself, that there has been no criminal charges or criminal convictions against solicitors & their employees for legal aid fraud to date in Scotland.
Odd it may be, but of course, no coincidence, for as long as the Law Society of Scotland are allowed to stage manage regulation of the legal profession in Scotland, including ensuring their members avoid criminal charges on matters which would give anyone else a criminal record .. the likes of this imbalance in the application of justice will continue to occur.
You can read the Scottish Legal Aid Board’s annual report for 2007-8 here : Annual Report 2007 - 2008 - in pdf format
You can find out which legal firms, advocates & solicitor advocates received the money here : Legal Aid paid to firms of solicitors and Legal Aid paid to Advocates and Legal Aid paid to Solicitor Advocates
Now read the Scotsman’s version of the story :
Published Date: 24 March 2009
By Michael Howie
LAWYERS in Scotland have been forced to repay £1.6 million in wrongly claimed legal aid over the past six years.
An investigation by The Scotsman reveals that the number of solicitors and legal firms investigated for apparent legal aid irregularities has increased by 50 per cent in that time.
In 2007-8 alone, 115 individual solicitors and firms were forcedto pay back legal aid.
Much of the money repaid to the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) that year came from the widow of James Muir.
He conned the body out of £1.8 million by embellishing scores of child abuse cases to claim extra money. The solicitor took his life in 2005.
A handful of the cases have been reported to the Law Society of Scotland and the Crown Office for alleged fraud.
However, it is understood that no solicitor has ever been convicted in a criminal court of defrauding the legal aid board.
The high number of investigations and repayments reflects a drive by SLAB to clean up the distribution of legal aid, which last year cost taxpayers some £155 million – an increase of 3 per cent on the previous year.
The legal aid board says it has "focused" its efforts to rein in falsely claimed funds in recent years. With fraud notoriously difficult to prove, it is often not known whether the false claims were criminal, but experts insist in many cases they will be honest mistakes.
Philip Yelland, director of standards at the Law Society of Scotland, said the "vast majority" of solicitors adhered to high professional standards.
"Any matters referred to us by SLAB follow the society's procedures for dealing with complaints.
"We have a robust investigation process which can lead to the society considering disciplinary action, which may involve prosecution before the independent Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal.
"The tribunal, which has different powers to those of the courts, can impose various sanctions from a censure to striking a solicitor from the roll, banning them from practice."
Two solicitors in recent years have been prosecuted by the tribunal.
Paul Kirk's firm was prosecuted for submitting false accounts and inflated charges – netting him thousands of pounds of legal aid which he should not have been paid. The Lanarkshire solicitor was fined £10,000 in 2007.
Meanwhile, Meredith Graham Sykes was fined £2,500 the same year for trying to obtain payment from the board "by misrepresentation".
Labour's justice spokesman, Richard Baker, said the Scottish Legal Aid Board needed to "get a grip" on the issue to ensure all monies paid were claimed properly.
"The SLAB budget has increased greatly over the years and to ensure access to justice for as many as possible, it's vital that the board ensures absolute accountability and transparency."
Robert Brown, Lib Dem justice spokesman, said: "It's absolutely vital that the Scottish Legal Aid Board is as rigorous as possible in these matters and that, where appropriate, cases are reported for prosecution."
Bill Aitken, for the Conservatives, added: "Bearing in mind that the bulk of the money involved has come from one individual, it seems that Scotland's lawyers can claim to have a reasonably clean bill of health.
"Some of them, however, do have to take more care in submitting accounts as, leaving aside the question of criminality or fraud, there are still cases where the claims submitted do not tie up and this costs a fair amount to investigate."