Hard sell or just bending the rules? Starting a new series of in-depth reports, Cyril Dixon looks at the “easy business” of winning Green Form clients
PETER LANE is sharp, hard-working, and has an unerring eye for a business opportunity. He is also a source of irritation to the Legal Aid Board.
Lane is the entrepreneurial “fixer” who established Clan, a legal consultancy which organised the generation and processing on a massive scale of Green Form legal aid work.
His ability to find clients among council tenants enabled one solicitor to expand his legal aid work from a trickle to more than £2 million in a year.
In an interview with The Lawyer, Lane described how he launched Clan, and steered it to an estimated turnover of £300,000 from one contract alone, with Alan Pritchard, a Birmingham-based sole practitioner.
Lane operated consultancies with six other law firms, and believes others adopted his strategy. He claims to have three new agreements running along the same lines as Clan.
Legal aid officials dislike “marketing” Green Form work as expounded by Clan, because it tends to involve the use of unqualified staff.
They believe this can undermine the degree of control they have over how the work is done. As well as loosening their grip on the purse strings, it can undermine the quality of service to the client.
As a safeguard, the board's regulations insist that all work is strictly supervised by a qualified solicitor.
Clan was effectively closed when the Law Society intervened in Pritchard's practice and took away his certificate a year ago. It alleged at Birmingham High Court that Pritchard was engaged in fraud. The Serious Fraud Office has an ongoing investigation into the case, and has interviewed Lane and Pritchard.
Lane is insistent that they have done nothing wrong. Rather, they simply followed a sales programme based on a Law Society circular on marketing. He is now protesting their innocence in a letters campaign to politicians and legal authorities.
“We simply went off the back of the Law Society's laid down procedure,” he says. “A lawyer's office is no different from any other business – you capitalise. If you can get your endeavours directed rather than splattering it all over the wall, you will come out with the maximum.”
It was among Birmingham's run-down council estates and tower blocks that Lane saw the potential for a mass-marketing scheme for Green Form.
Lane had a client-friend relationship with Pritchard, who had advised him on legal matters in the past, and the pair often discussed business.
In the autumn of 1992, they were discussing the decline in Pritchard's criminal work. Lane suggested expanding the civil side of the practice by taking action on behalf of council tenants seeking repairs or rehousing.
Further, inspired by the Law Society circular, he worked out an efficient way of doing it. “Basically, I am an organiser,” he says. “I put things in place, then I step back and monitor things.”
His campaign used newspaper and radio advertising to make people aware of Pritchard's services, and employed people to push leaflets through letter-boxes.
“We leaflet-dropped, we did surgeries and clinics, we had a mobile bus,” he says. The surgeries at church halls, community centres and on the bus, allowed prospective clients to instruct staff on their problems.
Untrained employees – including law students on their summer vacation – took the instructions. They filled in a questionnaire setting out the client's details, asked them to sign a Green Form, then took the papers back to the office.
Lane says that under Pritchard's guidance, the work to be done – usually a letter to the council landlord – was completed, the details transferred to the Green Form and the claim for reimbursement submitted to the Legal Aid Board.
He insists that Pritchard was always in control. “As long as they were competent people and the work was supervised by a qualified person, their work fell within the rules and regulations.”
Clan – so-called because of the number of Lane's relatives who worked at its offices — thrived and Pritchard's practice enjoyed a turnaround.
By the end of 1993, Pritchard had opened new offices in Wolverhampton, and Lewisham, south London, and employed more than 50 people. Clan itself employed 15.
Under an agreement between the two parties, Clan undertook not to give advice to any client. It was to be paid £40 per claimant introduced, plus up to £210 for property surveys commissioned by Clan. Lane estimates that in the 12 months from the beginning of 1993, Clan handled about 7,000 Green Form cases.
Once the business was running, Lane's organisational role had diminished. He decided therefore, to divert his attention to other consultancies.
He believes this was his big mistake. One of the firms he entered into an agreement with was raided by the Law Society and the SFO. After the Clan connection was discovered, detectives turned their attentions to Pritchard.
Lane is still working from the same Birmingham city centre offices from which Clan was run.
He has no legal training himself and believes it is unnecessary for what he is doing. “You don't need anything more than to be able to read and write. Policies for rehousing under the Landlord and Tenants Act are very simple.”
Pritchard was unavailable for comment last week. But Lane is adamant that no crime has been committed by them. “I know it for a fact,” he says. “They have nothing in the rules to say a lawyer can't have a consultancy providing it is controlled, contained and monitored.”
However, investigators, officials and some practitioners remain uneasy about the part played by organisations such as Clan in the processing of Green Form actions.
Last March, Steve Orchard, Legal Aid Board chief executive, told the Public Accounts Committee session on Green Form that non-lawyers attached themselves to solicitors to “generate income by touting the benefits of the scheme”.
Orchard told The Lawyer last week: “The main problem is the use of untrained and unqualified staff operating without supervision and paid in such a way that there is no incentive for them to think of the client's interest.”
He is sceptical at the claim that a Clan-style marketing operation can be run within the rules. “It can be done, but it would be very difficult because of the need in our view for
effective supervision of all unqualified staff.”
Russell Wallman, the Law Society's head of professional policy, says the division between marketing and fraud is clear. “Fraud is exaggerating claims or claiming for work which is not done. There is no objection to getting out and seeking business.”