Married solicitors jailed last year for legal aid fraud and facing a £7m civil claim from the Ministry of Justice have now been referred to a disciplinary tribunal.
Astrid Halberstadt-Twum – principal solicitor at East London law firm Cleveland & Co – and her husband Joseph Twum, who was its practice manager, were convicted in July 2018 of conspiracy to defraud what is now the Legal Aid Agency and perverting the course of justice by concealing records and destroying case files.
Ms Halberstadt-Twum was handed a prison sentence of three years and Mr Twum sentenced to two-and-a-half years.
According to a ruling of Mr Justice Kerr in June 2019 – in which he imposed a worldwide freezing order on the pair to replace the restraint order in force during the criminal proceedings – Mr Twum had just been let out of prison on licence, and his wife was possibly being released at the end of August under a home detention curfew.
Notices published yesterday by the Solicitors Regulation Authority recorded that the tribunal has certified that both have a case to answer as a result of their convictions and also not reporting them to the regulator.
Kerr J’s ruling said there were three aspects to the civil proceedings. First was a claim for £40,000 that was defrauded and as established by the jury’s verdicts.
“That £40,000 forms part of a much larger claim for about £4m,” he said. “That £4m claim relates to payments made in respect of work allegedly done by the defendants which the claimant says was not done.
“The alleged work in those cases relate to case files in immigration and asylum matters where the clients of Cleveland & Co have, after a search, not been identified by the Home Office as ever having applied for any immigration or asylum status.
“That conclusion was reached after conducting investigations of over 9,000 files. Those investigations produced ‘no match’ in approximately 5,000 of those 9,000 case files.”
The third element of the claim is for £758,000 which it is claimed was overpaid.
With interest of £2m, the total claim is for about £6.85m.
Mr Twum told the court that he and his wife intended to defend the proceedings vigorously, and submitted that they would have a strong case.
He said the jury had only looked in detail at about six files and not the 50 to 60 files that the judge had directed.
Making the freezing order, Kerr J said: “I accept that there is at least a good arguable case in respect of those elements of the claim I have mentioned, the £758,000 and the £40,000 odd. On the present state of the evidence, it seems to me quite likely that at least a substantial proportion of the £4m claim will be made good.”
The Crown Prosecution Service took over prosecution of the fraud after the Court of Appeal criticised the Legal Aid Agency for trying to run the case through Thurrock Council’s counter fraud and investigation team, which acts as the national counter fraud and investigation directorate. However, the team continued to assist with the investigation.