Fraudulent legal aid claims involving solicitors have quadrupled in three years and total more than £4m. And legal aid fraud is much more widespread than first suspected, government figures show. In 1998 it was estimated to amount to £800,000.
The Legal Services Commission (LSC), which administers the legal aid fund in England and Wales, said most of the fraud involved solicitors exaggerating the amount of work they had done. Others made multiple claims for the same work.
Steve Orchard, the LSC chief executive, said police were investigating five cases. In a separate case, at least one solicitor has been convicted for his part in the largest single fraud, involving several million pounds.
Mr Orchard said changes in the legal aid system that came into force two years ago had provided his staff with much more information about the pattern of claims. "Before the change we could only check bills one at a time," he said. "Now we can look at representative samples and trends of claiming over a longer period."
Where the LSC suspects serious fraud it alerts the police, but if there is not enough evidence to sustain a prosecution it warns the firms that irregularities had been detected.
But the scale of the problem is bound to concern the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who has promised to bear down on excessive legal aid fees and over-claiming. Last year Lord Irvine gave the Bar Council the names of up to 100 barristers suspected of fiddling the taxpayer out of an estimated £1m in legal aid fees.
The lawyers, some of them QCs, were found by court officials to have made "unreasonable" claims after representing defendants on criminal charges. A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said detected fraud amounted to only 0.25% of the gross legal aid expenditure of £1.6bn.Reuse content