Dubious practices by Liverpool lawyers have sent the city's legal aid bill for welfare cases soaring to three times the rest of the country, it was claimed last week.
Figures released by the Merseyside Legal Services Committee show that in 1997/98 an average of £11.21 from legal aid funds was spent for each person on welfare within Merseyside - with Liverpool claiming £27 per person. This compares to an average of £4 in Birmingham and Newcastle and £1.75 for London.
City solicitor Robin Makin of Rex Makin & Co says that his firm raised concerns over the waste of money for welfare benefit checks with Steve Orchard, head of the Legal Aid Board, six years ago.
"Some solicitors in the city send out leaflets to council estates with freephone numbers offering free welfare benefit checks," says Makin.
"One firm - which has now gone bust - used to send anyone who walked into the office down the corridor for a welfare rights check as a matter of course."
Under the current system, solicitors can claim the first two hours of advice on DSS claims back under the green form system. Makin alleges that many cases are then dropped by the less scrupulous firms, either because the solicitor is well aware that there is no case to answer or because if there is a case, the solicitor cannot claim back the cost of going to a tribunal hearing from legal aid.
A spokeswoman from the Merseyside Legal Services Committee said that anecdotal evidence collected by the body suggests that in many cases there is no benefit to the client. Within the city £2m of the £3m spent on welfare benefit checks is spent by firms without a legal aid franchise.
Out of the total £10.8m legal aid bill for the area, £4.5m is spent on welfare cases. From January 2000 the regulations will be changed which will prevent the green form being used for such cases.