£2m miners fund missing cash probe

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A SCOTTISH lawyer is under investigation over claims that he failed to pass on payments from a £2 million compensation pot for former miners that was paid to his firm.

• Paul McConville at his home in Hamilton. Picture: Robert Perry

Glasgow-based personal injuries specialist Paul McConville is at the centre of a probe by the Law Society of Scotland over complaints concerning the way he handled more than 2.2m of cash paid out by the government-backed Miners Liability Unit, set up in 1999 to compensate thousands of ex-miners for ill health caused by their job.

At least a dozen former clients have come forward with complaints that McConville failed to pay them or did not lodge their claim before the compensation fund deadline including the daughter-in-law of the late Henry Baxter, who says she is owed more than 9,000.

As well as the compensation payments made to the firm it also received over 2m in payment for handling the cases.

McConville was already suspended by the Law Society before the complaints came to light after being declared bankrupt over unpaid tax debts.

It is not the first time the massive scheme to compensate former miners has hit the headlines. Last year two solicitors in England were struck off for claiming too much in fees after taking in 23 million from the scheme.

McConville lives in a semi-detached home on a housing estate in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. Asked to account for the multi-million-pound sum that was paid to his firm, he said that he did not wish to make a comment at this stage but added: "I have never purloined any clients' money. That is the biggest no no for a lawyer."

The Department of Energy and Climate Change, which oversaw the fund, has told Scotland on Sunday that McConville's firm, McConville O'Neill, had been paid 2.277m in compensation funds for the 1,704 claimants he was engaged by. The DECC says the firm was also paid 2.066m in "costs".

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However, it is unclear how much of the compensation money was paid by McConville to his clients as no subsequent checks were made.

McConville, who until recently had an office in Hope Street, Glasgow, found his clients by advertising and by calling former miners and their families personally to encourage them to make claims on the fund.

Three of McConville's former clients have told Scotland on Sunday how they spent many frustrating months trying to get the money owed to them from the solicitor who they claim avoided any attempts to make contact.

Glenrothes Labour MP Lindsay Roy has written to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, demanding an inquiry into what happened.

Roy said he feared that hundreds of McConville's former clients may not have been compensated. "The trouble is we just don't know how much, if any, of the money went to McConville's clients. We also don't know how many other cases he failed to progress before the deadline. That is why we need a full inquiry into what happened."

A spokeswoman for the Law Society of Scotland said: "We have received a number of complaints about his (McConville's) conduct and the inquiries are still ongoing." However, the Law Society's insurer has already paid out compensation to former clients of McConville for his failure to handle their cases properly.

In a letter to one former client, Mary Hunter, from Leven in Fife, who received 1,000 compensation, the Society noted that it had referred her case to the Procurator Fiscal and that there was still an "outstanding conduct prosecution" by the Society against McConville. This is believed to relate to failing to reply to LSS inquiries into her complaint.

The miners compensation fund was set up by the Labour government after British Coal was judged to have failed to provide safe working conditions for thousands of its former employees. Billions of pounds have been paid out for conditions such as vibration white finger, bronchitis and emphysema in what has become the largest personal injury compensation scheme ever devised. Payments have ranged from tens of thousands of pounds to less than 1. Huhne is currently resisting calls for an inquiry into McConville O'Neill because of ongoing proceedings.

A DECC spokesman said: "Whilst the Secretary of State is sympathetic to the individual claimants affected by the issues raised, the department's position remains that we have met our obligations in relation to claimants.

"As the defendant is in legal proceedings, it is not appropriate for us to instigate any inquiry into the conduct of solicitors chosen by claimants themselves to represent them.

"That said, we will continue to offer assistance to the Law Society of Scotland over any inquiries it makes. We will also continue to cooperate with the police should they continue their inquiries."

The lawyer has been the subject of a police investigation. However, a spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police, which took the lead in the inquiry, said that the force had been "unable to find evidence of criminality" and "deemed it to be a civil matter".