A tale of toasters and training shoes

Peter Lane's continued involvement in Green Form is a reminder to the authorities that their vision of an ideal free aid and advice service has yet to be realised.

Nobody now denies that the system, reliant upon the honesty of the solicitors who use it, has been exploited in ways ranging from clear fraud to imaginative manipulation.

Last March, almost a decade after Green Form fraud was first identified, the Public Accounts Committee heard that the level of abuse necessitated a fundamental review by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Robert Sheldon, the committee's chair, called the scheme a “blank cheque”. Sir Thomas Legg, permanent secretary at the LCD, said it was “inherently vulnerable”.

Estimates of the annual sums defrauded stretch from £500,000 to £12 million. The Legal Aid Board's special investigation unit is currently examining the work of about 100 law firms.

Green Form involves solicitors carrying out up to two hours' legal advice and assistance for clients on low incomes. Only after completing the work can the solicitor claim reimbursement, at an hourly rate of up to £45.75 for non-franchised firms.

However, legal aid sources believe it was possible for solicitors to inflate claims by exaggerating the amount of work done, submitting multiple claims for one piece of work, and claiming for work not done. The system relied on the integrity of the solicitor in making an honest claim and the vigilance of the Legal Aid Board staff in checking for those who didn't.

Thus, it is possible that only the more outrageous scams were detected. One partner recalls representing a lawyer convicted of submitting claims under obviously bogus names such as Donald Duck.

In the mid-1980s, the Legal Aid Board recognised that the problem of general fraud was of sufficient gravity to justify setting up its own investigative unit. Until then, inquiries were carried out by its auditors.

Operating from offices off Gray's Inn Road, the unit's five-strong investigation team is headed by Peter Smith, a former detective. It is called in to examine “unusual” claims and refers them to the police if a crime is suspected.

As well as inflated claims, investigators have become concerned over the years with practices which do not amount to fraud, but which stray from the purpose for which the scheme was designed. Lane's Clan consultancy occupied this grey area.

Practices by others included “bribing” prospective clients with gifts. Lurid tales circulated about lawyers and their representatives heading for council estates laden with food, electric goods and training shoes.

The impetus for change came last year when the number of suspected frauds almost tripled to 957 within the space of 12 months.

Among the stories which brought the Green Form scheme under wider scrutiny was the Pritchard case. The board responded with measures to tighten up the system.

These included computerising the processing system and introducing liaison officers between legal aid investigators and area offices, so unusual claims were spotted more quickly.

Another measure was the introduction of a more detailed Green Form which ensures a fee earner takes responsibility for each task undertaken.