A former director of a closed law firm has been ordered to pay the government £22.1m in a High Court judgment finding it 'more likely than not' that 'systemic fraud' had taken place in claims for legal aid
The court heard that Legal Aid Agency investigators had found a ‘very significant discrepancy’ between claims made by the firm on the legal aid portal and the cases recorded on the court service’s database.
In Lord Chancellor v Blavo & Co Solicitors Ltd & Ors, handed down today, the judge ruled that, on the balance of probabilities, some files were not genuine and he rejected the claim that these were isolated instances of fraud attributed to one individual fee earner.
‘I find that 42 out of the 49 files audited in July 2015 were not genuine files but were falsely created in order to justify dishonest claims for payment,’ said the judge, who noted there was no record in these cases of any hearing having taken place. ‘The fact that the [legal aid] agency was able to find cases of fraud in 42 of the 49 files presented for audit in 2015 indicates that this was no needle in a haystack.’
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Blavo, 57, paraded supercars in the driveway of his multimillion-pound home and his daughter Stephanie (pictured) enjoyed trips to the Royal Ascot
The court heard that the Legal Aid Agency had looked into more than 23,000 files as part of its investigation into the firm, which was closed down by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2015. The judge said there had been a ‘clear failure’ to co-operate with the investigation by providing full, truthful and prompt explanations and by failing to provide files to the LAA.
He ruled that, given the unexplained discrepancy between the claims for payment and data from HMCTS, it was ‘unarguably proportionate and rational’ to terminate the legal aid contract with the firm.
John Blavo was admitted to the
The firm specialised in mental health
The 2015 audit was ordered after legal aid authorities noted growing concerns about the sums being claimed for, the judgment states. After the audit, the agency identified 24,658 cases in which the firm had claimed fees in respect of representation before a mental health hearing, but found evidence a hearing was actually held in only 1,485 cases. The £22.1m figure was the value of claims that were not supported by any evidence of being pursued.
Blavo did not give evidence during the seven-day hearing in October, but called two witnesses on his behalf; a former colleague and an external accountant.
His lawyer submitted that the allegation that an enormous percentage of the firm’s turnover was dishonestly obtained was ‘inherently implausible’.