Solicitors 'abusing' legal aid scheme

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Public spending watchdogs yesterday described a scheme which gives millions of pounds for immediate free legal help as "a blank cheque" for solicitors determined to abuse it.

The scheme attacked by the Commons Public Accounts Committee is "green form" legal aid, which allows solicitors to claim, without any approval, for up to three hours' work at pounds 43.25 an hour on matrimonial cases or two hours' work on other cases. It accounts for about 12 per cent of the annual pounds 1.4bn legal aid budget.

The point of the scheme is to allow people with limited means accused of crimes to get help quickly when they need it. But the committee said in its report yesterday: "We view . . . with the gravest concern the inherent weaknesses in the scheme which appear to us to represent something of a blank cheque to those firms who are determined to abuse the scheme."

The committee heard in evidence that the Legal Aid Board, which administers the scheme, has examined complaints against 300 firms of solicitors involving fraud estimated at pounds 1.9m-pounds 3m.

In his latest report on legal aid in February, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, refused for the fourth year running to approve the accounts because of the level of suspected abuse.

He said more than 80 law firms were still under investigation, and legal aid payment to 15 had been suspended. He suggested solicitors were taking pounds 6.4m a year illegally. The solicitors' professional body, the Law Society, argues that most of these investigations are over disputed interpretation of the rules, not attempted fraud.

Sir John alleged "aggressive marketing" of the scheme, and suggested some advice was given by unqualified personnel.

The MPs endorsed his fears yesterday, saying there was "growing evidence" that "clients had been asked and misled into signing" multiple green forms, when they needed advice on only one matter of law.