Man must pay £21m his St Albans law firm dishonestly claimed in legal aid

PUBLISHED: 14:19 07 January 2019 | UPDATED: 14:21 07 January 2019

Phoenix House Suites on Campfield Road

Phoenix House Suites on Campfield Road

Archant

A lawyer has been ordered to pay £21m his St Albans law firm dishonestly claimed from the Government for legal aid fees.

John Blavo, who has lived on Cunningham Road and was a director of the Blavo & Co law firm, was given the order by Mr Justice Ed Pepperall QC at a High Court hearing on December 21.

This is after Blavo & Co was found to have copied and pasted text between two different reports and made up both tribunal dates and people to claim the sum for representing clients in mental health cases.

The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) stopped giving money to Blavo & Co several times after June 2015 and the agency launched an investigation into the firm the following August.

After being asked for 1,000 files every week of cases which the LAA could not find data for on the tribunal computer system for England, the firm delivered 976 unkempt files, none of which had been requested. Following this, the firm was banned from taking on any more mental health cases.

John Blavo blamed the delivery problems on his director having a brain haemorrage and the firm’s head office being broken into and deliberately flooded.

One of Blavo & Co’s lawyers, Lee-Ann Frampton-Anderson, said in evidence: “The office was a mess. There had been a significant flood and there seemed to be a lot of damage.

“The carpets throughout the office were soaked with water, files were thrown all over the floors, contents of shelves and cabinet drawers had been emptied onto the floor and shredders emptied and scattered.”

However, Mr Justice Pepperall found the break-in and flood had no substantial impact on the firm’s ability to provide files.

Two files received from Blavo & Co concerned two people who both had back surgery at the same hospital in the same year; were both born in London and were the second eldest of seven siblings with a brother living in Ireland, a sister in Tasmania and two further sisters in South Africa, a sister in Cheltenham and a brother in Stroud.

Both of them had moved to St Albans in 1965 (despite one of them not having been born until 1967 according to the files) where they lived for 12 years before moving to Durban in South Africa.

LAA officers could not find tribunals which matched with the details from those two files.

An auditor called to give evidence said the amount Blavo & Co dishonestly claimed for was worth up to 80 per cent of the firm’s turnover for the 12 months before March 31, 2014.

According to Mr Justice Pepperall, if John Blavo had been called, he would have asserted he did not believe any “improper” claims had been made and that “given the time and opportunity [he believed] a proper examination of all the files would reveal that all claims actually made by the company had been properly made.”

By September 2015, Blavo & Co’s legal aid contracts were terminated and in October, the Solicitors Regulation Authority closed the firm down. Its 16 branches were closed, including the one at Phoenix House on Campfield Road in St Albans.

Mr Justice Pepperall said: “There was a clear failure to co-operate with the official investigation by providing full, truthful and prompt explanations and by failing to provide files to the LAA.

“Given the scale of the unexplained discrepancy between the claims for payment and the HMCTS data, it was in my judgment unarguably proportionate and rational to terminate the contract.

He continued: “I find the practice of making fraudulent claims on the legal aid fund was endemic at Blavo & Co.

“In some instances, the fraud went so far as forging false files.

“In many more cases, false files were not created and consequently there was nothing to deliver up in response to the LAA’s requests.”

A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said: “The LAA welcomes the judgment in this case as the outcome demonstrates the robustness of our counter fraud operations and detection systems. We are now considering next steps.”

To read the judgement in the case, visit www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2018/3556.html

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