Lawyer fined £10,000 for legal aid con - but will face no criminal charges

A LAWYER who escaped prosecution after he was twice caught cheating the legal aid fund has been fined £10,000 for professional misconduct.

Paul Kirk, 48, fiddled his records to double-charge for work and to apply for excessive fees from the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB).

He had been given a second chance after claiming initial discrepancies were due to an administrative mix-up.

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It is estimated the scheme netted him about 35,000, and, although Mr Kirk, of Uddingston, Lanarkshire, was reported to police, he is not to face criminal charges.

Suspicion had been raised because of Mr Kirk's high earnings, of more than 300,000 a year, and investigators uncovered overcharging by someone who "seemed to be busy doing nothing".

In one instance, Mr Kirk charged for a meeting with clients when he was, in fact, in talks with SLAB auditors.

The Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal would have been expected to hand down its severest penalty, by striking him off, but it was unable to do so because he had already resigned.

The tribunal said in a judgment issued yesterday that it could do no more than impose a censure and a financial penalty, 10,000 being the maximum fine within its powers. It repeated a call made in another recent case for a change in the law so rogue lawyers could not jump before they were pushed.

Mr Kirk had been a solicitor for 20 years when, in 2002, he started his own firm, operating a criminal practice mainly in Hamilton and Glasgow sheriff courts. He became one of the top five legal aid earners among sole practitioners, receiving 322,080 in 2002-3 and 311,037 in 2003-4; SLAB became "concerned" at the level of his earnings, the tribunal said.

An analysis of Mr Kirk's timesheets disclosed "serious discrepancies pointing towards excessive charges being intimated". Asked if Mr Kirk could have been making mistakes with his accounts, a SLAB witness said he did not think so, as the mistakes were always in Mr Kirk's favour and appeared to be a consistent practice.

Mr Kirk was threatened with being removed from the legal aid register, but through his solicitor he maintained it had been a "mix-up" and he was given another chance. He was said to be a good lawyer, but not good with administration.

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"Regrettably, he failed to take this opportunity and as a result of further analysis carried out by SLAB ... it was revealed that he was once again engaged in the duplication of charging and the submission of accounts seeking excessive payments," the tribunal said.

The analysis had been based on a 15 per cent sample of the accounts submitted by Mr Kirk for cases between 2002 and 2004. From these, SLAB had identified 30 occasions when he had double-charged, and the amount overpaid to him was 3,843.

The matter had been reported to the Law Society of Scotland, which lodged a complaint against Mr Kirk with the tribunal. He was informed, but he did not appear at the hearing before the tribunal, and he was not represented.

The tribunal held that Mr Kirk had been guilty of professional misconduct. It said: "The tribunal was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that [Mr Kirk] had acted in a dishonest fashion in submitting inaccurate accounts to SLAB which resulted in him receiving extremely large sums of money to which he was not entitled."

The judgment went on: "The tribunal considers that his behaviour in relation to his fraudulent claims to SLAB strikes at the very heart of the obligations of honesty and integrity which are incumbent upon every solicitor.

"The tribunal would again urge the Law Society to make representations to the Scottish Executive to amend the relevant legislation to ensure the Law Society can refuse to permit the name of a solicitor to be removed from the Roll [of Solicitors] when disciplinary action is pending."

A spokesman for the SLAB said it did not have a total figure for Mr Kirk's case, but it had received a repayment from him and was confident there had been no loss to the public purse. The matter had been reported to the police, he said, but it was understood there was to be no criminal prosecution.

Sources suggested the sum involved had been estimated at around 35,000.

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The Crown Office confirmed it had received a report in relation to Mr Kirk, and said: "After careful consideration of all the available facts and circumstances, it was concluded that there should be no proceedings in this case."

No further explanation was given.

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