Dishonest lawyers face crackdown: Law Society takes action after claims that it fails to protect the public

THE LAW SOCIETY, the solicitors' governing body, is to launch a drive against dishonesty in the legal profession after accusations that it fails to protect the public from fraudulent lawyers.

'Operation Crackdown', an initiative with the legal aid board, aims to speed up action and improve links between the police and the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, which investigates allegations of dishonesty.

The action follows repeated complaints from clients who have suffered at the hands of crooked solicitors. They say the society is too slow to strike off lawyers who have committed crime, leaving the impression that the profession is unwilling to properly regulate itself.

Police investigating alleged fraud are also upset at the delays. They say they are often not told of a complaint to the Law Society until far too late, allowing crooked lawyers to continue stealing from clients or to cover up their actions long before a criminal inquiry can begin.

Claims against the Solicitors Indemnity Fund, which compensates clients in certain cases of negligence and dishonesty, rose by up to 22 per cent in

1991-92. The Law Society's Compensation Fund, which meets claims against solicitors practising alone, paid out pounds 16m last year. Recent estimates put the level of serious fraud by solicitors at pounds 35m in 1992.

Marie Staunton, editor of the Solicitors' Journal, an independent publication, said: 'Solicitors are getting really worried about their image, which has reached rock bottom because of the actions of a dishonest few.'

The concerns were highlighted last week when the Law Society launched an internal investigation into the circumstances which allowed a fraudulent solicitor to continue practising for 10 years, even though he had been reported to the society for theft.

Roland Fernandes, 55, was jailed for four and a half years at Luton Crown Court earlier this month for stealing more than pounds 1m from clients and mortgage companies. One of his former clients, Lewis Nicholson, said after the case that he first complained about Fernandes in 1981, and had made 39 separate allegations of malpractice. 'I was deliberately fobbed off and obstructed by Law Society officials,' he said.

Fernandes was finally struck off in 1990. But police say they heard nothing from the Law Society until afterwards, and they only began investigating because of a complaint from a client who had lost pounds 30,000.

In another case, clients of a Chelsea solicitor accused of misappropriating pounds 410,000 have complained about the Law Society's handling of the affair. Peter Arthur Lawrence was struck off in February, after admitting that he failed to keep proper accounts and used clients' money for his own purposes.

One client who lost pounds 8,000 claimed the Law Society was aware of irregularities in Lawrence's accounts and his failure to apply for a practising certificate six years before it took any action to stop him practising.