Leading legal aid law firm Duncan Lewis has been sanctioned for breaching the rule that prohibits paying referral fees for legally aided clients.
The rebuke and £2,000 fine is the most that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) can do without referring the firm to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
A regulatory settlement agreement recorded that Duncan Lewis – a 24-office practice headquartered in Harrow, in north-west London – entered into an arrangement with the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) for the referral of clients seeking urgent legal assistance.
The NCDV carried out preparatory work on the cases, such as obtaining the client’s witness statement, before referring the client to the firm. Duncan Lewis paid £170 plus VAT per referral, all of which were legally aided.
The firm did not tell the clients referred that it had paid a fee, which was also a breach of the SRA Handbook.
The SRA said the mitigation it took into consideration was that Duncan Lewis has stopped paying referral fees to NCDV; complied with the regulation’s investigation, made admissions and apologised for its conduct; and has reviewed its procedures and made changes to reduce the risk of similar breaches occurring again.
It considered the agreed outcome to be “a proportionate outcome in the public interest”.
The firm also agreed to pay £1,350 in costs.
Meanwhile, the SRA has closed down a south London law firm that was last year accused by the High Court of making “largely dishonest” claims for unpaid fees.
The SRA said it had intervened into the practices of Simeon Olumide Coker and Isi Inyang, both based at Alpha Rocks Solicitors in Brixton, on the grounds that there was “reason to suspect dishonesty” by both of them.
“At this stage of the SRA’s work, no further details can be disclosed,” a spokeswoman for the regulator said. “It is only if disciplinary proceedings become necessary that any information is released into the public domain.
“The SRA will now complete its investigation and decide on the appropriate course of action. There is no timescale for how long this work will take.”
The spokeswoman added that all the regulator could say at this stage about why the intervention took so long is that it had been a “complex case”.
Last summer, Murray Rosen QC, sitting as a deputy High Court judge, dismissed the fee claims made by Alpha Rocks as “wholly without merit”.
The law firm hit back, claiming the decision “grossly undermines equity and justice as it suggests that a client can avoid paying for professional fees”.