A solicitor who turned “a wilful blind eye to the obvious suspicious circumstances” of dozens of virtually identical personal injury claims has been handed a £35,000 fine.
Had Asghar Ali undertaken proper identity checks on the clients and shown a “normal” level of vigilance, he would have reached “the inescapable conclusion that it was more likely than not that some, if not all, of the claims bore the hallmarks of fraud”, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) ruled.
But despite finding that Mr Ali had lacked integrity and acted recklessly, and had shown little insight into what he did wrong, the tribunal concluded that “neither the protection of the public nor the protection of the reputation of the legal profession justified a suspension or striking off the roll”.
At the same time, it found evidence of “direct harm” to the defendant insurers who had paid out costs and damages on fraudulent claims.
Also, if the alleged accidents had occurred – which was not clear – “there may have been innocent motorists caught up in the fraudulent claims, and whose vehicles may have been damaged; injury caused to them; their work affected and their insurance premiums increased”.
The “consequential damage to the reputation of the profession” by Mr Ali’s misconduct was significant too, it said.
The public would be “particularly concerned” by a solicitor who chose to ignore the “abundance” of red flags thrown up by the cases, which all followed very similar patterns.
The SDT said: “In most, if not all claims there were three or four occupants in the vehicle, one of whom would become the lead claimant, and who would provide only one mobile number as a contact number for the group.
“Invariably, the occupants lived at the same address or very near to each other; they had the same occupation (all self-employed); they had exactly the same injuries; none of the claimants ever sought medical attention, and they had the same or a very similar number of days off work as a result of the accident.
“This combination of features meant that none of them were required to produce medical records evidencing their injuries or employment documentation evidencing time off work or loss of earnings.
“Equally none of them claimed for damage to their vehicles, so along with the absence of any police accident report (the police never having been asked to attend any of the purported accidents), there was no requirement for them to produce documentation evidencing damage to their vehicle.”
The SDT rejected Mr Ali’s argument that the pattern could only have been seen with the benefit of hindsight – it had “not been a sophisticated fraud”, it said.
“Whilst the number of similar features in each claim might in itself have been cause for only mild suspicion in individual cases, the same set of circumstances presented to [him] time and again, and on some occasions within days or weeks of each other, must have led [Mr Ali] to question the veracity of the instructions he was receiving.”
Mr Ali qualified in 2002 and set up AA Solicitors in Bolton in 2013. It closed at the end of last year because the SDT proceedings meant he could not secure professional indemnity insurance.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) was alerted by a doctor who said the firm had sent him clients he had seen before under different names in relation to other accidents.
In all, the SRA identified 61 suspicious claims over a four-year period, all of which were referred by a former client, ‘Mr A’.
Of these, 21 did not result in compensation being paid – whenever an insurer sought additional evidence or expressed concerns about fraud, it was dropped.
The other 40 generated £78,400 in damages and £37,500 in legal costs. The fees represented a quarter of the firm’s turnover.
As well as finding him guilty of allowing his firm to act in claims that were fraudulent or had the hallmarks of fraud, the SDT said Mr Ali failed to obtain proof of identity – he applied higher standards in other areas of his practice, such as conveyancing and immigration – and failed to verify Mr A’s identity as well. There was no allegation of dishonesty.
The SDT noted that no client had ever written back to Mr Ali, other than returning the signed forms of instruction to his office without a covering letter.
There was nothing on the client files “to indicate that the individual for whom he had purportedly been instructed either existed, or had suffered an injury in the subject accident, or was aware that a claim was being pursued on his/her behalf”.
The SDT concluded that Mr Ali’s conduct was “a significant departure from the complete integrity, probity and trustworthiness expected of a solicitor”.
He had “turned a wilful blind eye to the obvious suspicious circumstances of each claim” and had shown “little genuine insight” into what happened, despite some late admissions before the tribunal.
“In his evidence he had maintained that all his clients and their claims were genuine, and that the fraud had operated only when imposters had attended for medical examination by Dr B, despite the improbability of this hypothesis and the weight of evidence to the contrary.”
Mr Ali also still considered Mr A to have been “a bona fide referrer of genuine cases”.
In his favour, the SDT said, were “positive testimonials which spoke to his good qualities as a person and a solicitor” and his hitherto unblemished record, while he had suffered financially as a result of his misconduct with the closure of the firm.
In addition to the fine, the SDT imposed conditions on his future practice meaning that Mr Ali cannot practise on his own or as a partner; cannot be a compliance officer, hold client money or be a signatory on any client account; and cannot work as a solicitor without SRA approval.
He was also ordered to pay costs of £31,500.