The Charity Commission has begun an investigation into the Joint Armed Forces Legal Advocacy Service (JAFLAS) in the wake of the continued involvement of notorious struck-off solicitor Dr Alan Blacker.
Dr Blacker received a suspended prison sentence for benefit fraud in 2020, which automatically disqualified him from acting as a trustee or a senior manager of a charity.
The Charity Commission rejected an application for a waiver, a decision upheld on appeal in April by the Charity Tribunal – the first time it had heard such an appeal.
But, as of last month, he was still listed as a director of the charity and as being a person of significant control on Companies House records, sparking the inquiry.
The commission said it would examine the administration, governance and management of JAFLAS, including whether a disqualified individual has continued to play a role in the charity. Acting whilst disqualified has both criminal and civil consequences, it said.
It will also probe the trustees’ response to Dr Blacker’s disqualification and whether the charity’s objects are being met and the charity is operating for the public benefit.
He gained a measure of notoriety for using the title ‘Lord Harley’ and claiming a huge number of honours and achievements on his LinkedIn profile.
However, in August 2016, he was struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), in part because he published “inaccurate and misleading” academic qualifications, appointments, accreditations and titles.
Last year, Dr Blacker was also indefinitely excluded from membership of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) for failing to inform it of his strike-off, 2018 bankruptcy and the conviction.
The tribunal judge, Alison McKenna, rejected Dr Blacker’s various attempts to impugn the SDT, CILEX and court decisions, and refused to go behind them.
For example, he said it was a “bad faith prosecution” and that the judge was “unfit through bias”, and that he was later found to be entitled to the benefits he was convicted of wrongfully claiming, and at a higher rate. He blamed a barrister he had instructed for not appealing the conviction.
He said that, after the SDT decision, he brought a defamation claim against the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and that it retracted some of its statements about him and paid him damages.
He provided no evidence to back up any of these claims – including that the SRA had made him sign a non-disclosure agreement – and Judge McKenna did not accept them.
“It is counter-intuitive that a person who exonerates himself in defamation proceedings would sign an NDA so that nobody else would know of his exoneration.
“Nevertheless, if the appellant’s evidence about the NDA is correct, he could have applied to present it to the tribunal subject to a direction as to its confidentiality, but he did not make any such application.”
The judge said she had been given no documentary evidence to support Dr Blacker’s claims of having received a knighthood and peerage – debunked during the SDT proceedings – “nor the many other assertions of good character and high standing made in the witness statement”.
The objects of JAFLAS, which does not have an official connection with the armed forces, are “the relief of financial hardship by the provision of free legal advice/assistance to persons who, through lack of means, would otherwise be unable to obtain such advice”.
Judge McKenna, acknowledged that JAFLAS was heavily reliant on Dr Blacker to provide services to its beneficiaries, but said he could still do so as a volunteer.
He was supported before the tribunal by the chair of trustees, Paul Bohill, but the judge noted “the absence of the other trustees from these proceedings”; Mr Bohill described them as “little people”, who were not used to litigation.
“I weigh into the positive side of the scales some early indications of contrition and insight from the appellant,” she went on.
“I appreciated his oral evidence on this point; however, his claim to be a changed man was easily disturbed when he became agitated, and he quickly reverted to casting blame on others.
“I conclude that it is as yet premature for his change of approach to be given much weight, but I hope that in time he may demonstrate the insight which would assist his case.”
Weighing more heavily against granting the waiver were the nature of the conviction, how recent it was and the absence of support from the whole trustee board.
“I place particular weight on the commission’s specialist knowledge of the charity sector and its view that public trust and confidence in charities would be harmed by the granting of waivers in this case.”
Dr Blacker will be eligible to serve as a charity trustee and executive officer again in October 2024, when his suspended sentence expires.
Judge McKenna said: “In the meantime, it will be open to [him] to continue to volunteer for JAFLAS, provided that he does not overstep the necessarily limited role he must play while he has no professional regulator.
“I accept that his long experience of legal practice could be valuable to those seeking the charity’s advice and assistance and that he is motivated by a desire to help those in need.”
But she said the relationship between his business, Alan Blacker & Co, and JAFLAS needed to be sorted – while he had said it was a trading subsidiary of the charity, Judge McKenna found that it was not in any formal sense and JAFLAS had no control over it.
“It seems to me imperative that a clear and transparent legal relationship between the two entities should be established, as this will provide the framework within which the appellant must work as a volunteer.”