An immigration lawyer who “wrongly claimed” £800,000 from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has been struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
The SDT heard that, following a file review, the LAA accused south London law firm Ziadies of “systematic, gross over-claiming for both disbursements and profit costs on hourly rate cases”.
The SDT went on: “The LAA also found that the vast majority of files reviewed did not have invoices for interpretation on them and that interpreters had worked on files as fee-earners.”
The LAA said that “billing sheets bore no resemblance to the record of work done on the files” and represented “egregious inflations of the work actually evidenced in the files”.
Evidence for the work of interpreters was “largely missing”.
Daksheenie Abeyewardene, head of immigration at Ziadies, admitted that she had “few records to support the notes she recreated and it was a ‘best guess’ on many occasions by looking at the files to determine the work that had been carried out.”
In an agreed outcome, the solicitor accepted that “she could not be certain who had interpreted on what day, how far they had travelled and the costs of this, as she had no contemporaneous records”.
Ms Abeyewardene accepted that “some of the attendance notes” inserted into the files seized by the LAA in 2014 were improper, “as they were recreated for the LAA audit to satisfy the LAA that the firm was compliant with their record keeping and contract requirements”.
She admitted dishonesty, but said she was suffering from “serious chronic illnesses” at the time and the £800,000 was repaid to the LAA.
The SDT heard in SRA v Abeyewardene that the LAA asked Ziadies to send in 150 immigration files for an audit in June 2014.
Ms Abeyewardene met the LAA in January 2015 for an interview and the agency completed its review in March 2015.
The solicitor was born in 1952, admitted to the roll in 1985 and from April 2015 was the sole member of Ziadies LLP. The law firm ceased trading at the end of July 2015.
Ms Abeyewardene admitted submitting claims to the LAA in immigration matters which she knew to be improper, breaching SRA Principles 2 and 6.
During the interview in January 2015, she admitted that she had “failed to deal with auditors from the LAA in an open and co-operative manner” when providing information about the role of two interpreters “in order to create a legitimate basis” for claims made to the LAA for interpreter travel times and expenses.
She admitted breaching SRA Principles 2, 6 and 7, and to acting dishonesty.
In mitigation, the solicitor said she accepted that “she failed to check billing sheets, that they may not have been accurate and that all claims may not have been justified” but did not accept that “there had been intentional systematic gross over-charging”.
She said she had been suffering from “numerous and debilitating serious chronic illnesses for a number of years”, exacerbated by stress.
The SDT said her improper claims had taken place over a three-year period and involved “at least £800,000 of public funds being wrongly claimed”. Although she had repaid the £800,000, the damage to the profession was severe.
The tribunal said it “had regard” to the medical evidence put forward by Ms Abeyewardene, but it was not submitted that this amounted to “exceptional circumstances” which could justify a lesser sanction than striking off.
She was struck off and ordered to pay £17,200 in costs.