Huge payout highlights true scale of dishonesty by solicitors

THE legal establishment has paid out nearly £1 million to clients robbed by crooked solicitors in recent years, The Scotsman has learned.

The Law Society of Scotland repaid 910,000 between 1999-2000 and 2003-4 to members of the public who had had money stolen from them by solicitors

The amounts paid indicate the extent of criminal activity by a small minority of Scotland's lawyers - an issue that has been brought to the fore by the knife attack on Leslie Cumming near his home in Murrayfield, Edinburgh, on 23 January.

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Mr Cumming, 62, is secretary of the Guarantee Fund, which investigates clients' allegations of theft by lawyers, and makes awards to customers where there is clear evidence of criminality. The fund receives 400 a year from more than 3,700 partners of law firms.

Police are working on the theory that someone who Mr Cumming had crossed in his work executed the attack or ordered "a hit".

In 2003-4, the most recent year for which figures are available, 187,000 was paid from the fund to 18 wronged clients. The previous year, 73,000 was paid to seven clients, and in 2001-2, 167,000 was paid to six individuals.

At least five lawyers are facing court proceedings in relation to alleged crimes carried out in the course of their work, though most do not involve theft.

Groups such as Scotland Against Crooked Lawyers (SACL) have long campaigned to expose criminality within legal circles, and claim that the Law Society, the regulatory body representing more than 9,000 solicitors for which Mr Cumming is chief accountant, does not do enough to remove the "bad eggs".

Detectives hunting Mr Cumming's attacker have drawn up a list of lawyers who were or who have been under investigation by his team, believing someone with a professional grudge against him may have been involved. But members of SACL believe an aggrieved client is more likely to have been behind the attack.

Stuart Usher, one of the group's main campaigners, said the Law Society refused to meet a claim for 3,500, which he insisted was illegally taken from him by a lawyer.

"There are a lot of people with axes to grind against lawyers and the Law Society, and I am one of them," he said. "I think it is more likely that the man responsible for the attack was an aggrieved client, rather than a crooked lawyer exposed by the society."

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Last year the Scottish Court Service moved to shut SACL's, website - which named more than 100 allegedly "rogue" lawyers. Senior legal sources have expressed concern about such sites, claiming they are tantamount to violence. But Mr Usher insists their means of protest are wholly peaceful.

A Law Society source said that "around two or three" lawyers are referred by the Guarantee Fund to public prosecutors each year.

A spokeswoman said: "Every solicitors' firm in Scotland is inspected for compliance with the accounts rules approximately every two years, and any breaches discovered by the society are investigated thoroughly.

"If the Law Society of Scotland discovers any dishonesty or criminal activity during its investigation, the matter is referred to the Crown Office." One such case involved Stranraer-based partner Kennedy Forster, who admitted 35 charges of embezzling 667,000 and was jailed for six-and-a-half years in 2004.

Mr Cumming was stabbed more than 12 times at his Murrayfield home shortly after 5pm on 23 January.