The dishonesty of John Blavo, whose legal aid firm made £22m of fraudulent claims on public funds, was “committed on an industrial scale”, a tribunal has said.
Striking him off, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal said he placed his “personal financial position… above any obligation he had as a solicitor”.
Blavo & Co, an 18-office firm closed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in October 2015 shortly after its legal aid contracts were terminated, employed 200 staff and had contracts with 150 consultants.
A Legal Aid Agency (LAA) investigation identified 24,658 cases in which the law firm had claimed fees for mental health tribunal hearings between 1 April 2012 and 31 March 2015.
However, it found that a hearing had been held in only 1,485 of them.
In December 2018, the High Court ruled on the balance of probabilities that the practice of making fraudulent legal aid claims was “endemic” at Blavo & Co, which at its height was one of the largest legal aid firms in the country.
Mr Justice Pepperall ruled that Mr Blavo was liable to repay £22.1m in claims for the thousands of cases which never took place.
Mr Blavo, who qualified in 1997, did not attend the SDT hearing in March, saying he denied all the allegations but did not wish to contest them.
He was the sole owner of Blavo & Co and held all the compliance roles. The LAA initiated a contract compliance audit in 2015 in the wake of a disagreement with the firm as to the number of new matter starts Blavo & Co had, with the LAA seeking repayments of at least £1.5m.
There was also an audit of six files in 2014 which showed “anomalies”.
The LAA sought 49 random files and found no record of 42 of them, for which it had paid out £40,000. This led to the wider investigation, termination of Blavo & Co’s legal aid contracts, the intervention and the High Court action.
The SDT considered a sample of 14 of the files, which it said bore a “remarkable and inexplicable similarity”. Documents included medical reports and tribunal decisions.
It went on: “The syntax, grammar and style of the documents was almost identical in each case to the value of around 95%.
“The tribunal found that it was plain that the reproduced errors could only have occurred as a result of documents from one file being copied and pasted to files that Mr Blavo was required to submit.”
This included Mr Blavo falsifying official court documents, using court seals and logos to make them appear authentic.
The tribunal, also on the balance of probabilities, found Mr Blavo had been “instrumental” in the process of creating the fake files.
His conduct was “deliberate, calculated and repeated over a period of time” and he had taken advantage of the trust placed in him both by his legitimate clients – in using their private and confidential documents to falsify others – and the LAA.
“He had, in the most egregious way… abused his position of power and authority. His dishonesty had been committed on an industrial scale.
“He had attempted to conceal his wrongdoing from the LAA, and in the civil proceedings (although not in the proceedings before the tribunal) had placed the blame for any wrongful claims on ‘rogue’ employees in circumstances where he had instigated the falsification of the files and documents.”
The nature of the misconduct was so serious that there could be no mitigating features against a decision to strike him off, the SDT concluded.
The SRA sought costs of £72,700. Mr Blavo said he had been made bankrupt and was the subject of a worldwide freezing order. He had no income or savings and did not have a bank account. He said he was living off the generosity of friends.
The SDT said there was no evidence that Mr Blavo had any hidden assets, but noted he had previously attempted to put assets beyond reach by transferring them to others.
While, on current information, the tribunal could not order the immediate payment of costs, it was appropriate to make an order for costs in the full amount, but for that order not to be enforceable without leave.
“In that way, if the [SRA] later discovered that there were further assets owned by Mr Blavo, it would be able to recover its costs.”