Scots lawyer who made false legal aid claims struck off solicitors’ roll for ‘professional misconduct’

A Scots lawyer who made dozens of false legal aid claims has been struck off the roll of solicitors after being found guilty of “professional misconduct”.

Massimo D’Alvito submitted at least 81 accounts between October 2009 and October 2011 which contained “fictitious outcomes” - prompting the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) to pay fees before payment was due.

The Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) said it had “no choice” but to strike his name from the solicitors’ roll for what it described as a “systematic abuse of the legal aid system”.

The tribunal heard that from November 2005 until June 2012 the respondent was a partner in the firm D’Alvito Defence Lawyers, which was de-registered by the Scottish Legal Aid Board following the allegations.

He thereafter set up the firm Road Traffic Legal Practice but was not employed within the legal profession at the time of the tribunal hearing, though his name remained on the roll of solicitors practising in Scotland.

A review by SLAB of the accounts submitted by the respondent found that he had deliberately entered false information into the board’s online system to receive monies which he was not entitled to at that stage.

The review revealed that he had submitted at least 81 accounts which contained “invented outcomes” stating that cases had concluded when in actual fact they had not, in what was described as a “fraudulent misrepresentation” to elicit payment from SLAB for the core fixed fees when the accounts were not due to be paid.

Separately, SLAB identified that of the 81 false accounts, 27 had been transferred to another firm, meaning the solicitor was only entitled to half the core fee.

The audit also revealed that the respondent engaged in a practice whereby he made “inappropriate charges” in respect of deferred sentences.

On six occasions he had fabricated and/or inaccurately described certain diets as being the first and second deferred sentences, which created an opportunity for him to claim an add on fixed fee only available for third and subsequent deferred sentences.

It was submitted on behalf of the respondent that although there had been dishonesty in his conduct, this had not resulted in any large part in a substantial fraud, and that he was claiming money early to which he would have been entitled in the long run.

He had repaid all sums involved in the cases where there had been a subsequent transfer of agency and the incidents of actual fraud amounted to a sum of £360, including VAT, over a long period of time.

The catalyst for his conduct, it was said, was a huge cash flow problem that he had suffered as a result of having to employ an assistant solicitor.

The tribunal was told that the respondent was a young man at an early stage of his career and as he had only recently started his own firm it had been difficult for him to secure an overdraft.

The SSDT was invited to consider punishing the respondent by either restricting his practising certificate to prevent him from undertaking legal aid work or by allowing him to come back to the profession in a number of years’ time.

However, the tribunal ruled that he acted in a “dishonest and deceitful fashion” and had “no hesitation” in finding the respondent guilty of professional misconduct.

In a written decision, tribunal chairman Alistair Cockburn said: “The respondent had admitted engaging in a deliberate and dishonest course of conduct extending over a period of two years.

“On 81 occasions the respondent had submitted the claims for payment which contained deliberate false entries and in each of these cases the respondent had completed a certificate indicating their truth and accuracy.

“On a further six occasions, the respondent had submitted claims for payment where the diets had been completely mis-described in order to claim further additional fees which were not payable.

“This conduct was very clearly a case of sufficient gravity and culpability that would be capable of bringing the profession into disrepute and was conduct which would be regarded by any competent and reputable solicitor as serious and reprehensible.

“The respondent had been involved in dishonest, and indeed, criminal conduct. The conduct had persisted over a period of two years. This systematic abuse of public funds will inevitably seriously damage the reputation of the profession.”

He added: “Whilst his repayment of the funds claimed and his cooperation with the tribunal proceedings were an indication of remorse, the information given to the tribunal suggested that the respondent had no insight into the seriousness of a solicitor completing 81 separate certifications of the veracity of information given to a public body, where he knew the representations to be false.

“This conduct clearly demonstrated that the respondent was not a fit person to be a solicitor and accordingly the tribunal had no choice but to strike his name from the roll of solicitors.”

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