Three solicitors have gone on trial accused of defrauding the Legal Aid Agency of £600,000.
Mohammed Ayub (pictured, right, top), 55, his brother Mohammed Riaz (pictured, right, middle), 48, and Neil Frew (pictured, right, bottom), 48, allegedly set up a ‘sham’ company to siphon off hundreds of thousands of pounds that they had claimed for interpreters’ fees.
It is alleged that the money was then taken out of the ‘sham’ company and used to pay into an amusement arcade firm, and for school fees.
The three men worked for Chambers Solicitors in Bradford (a firm entirely unconnected with Chambers Solicitors of Slough, Berkshire). In June last year, the Gazette reported that the three had been charged with conspiracy to defraud.
Simon Kealey, prosecuting, told Sheffield Crown Court that between September 2010 and October 2014, the men set up Legal Support Services after securing a contract for immigration work from the Legal Aid Agency in October 2010.
However, the contract did not involve disbursement payments. The court heard that Ayub, Riaz and Frew were to claim interpreter services back as expenses from the LAA.
Kealey told the court that almost £600,000 had been paid to LSS over four years, but the firm had no record of ever paying corporation tax, VAT or utility bills during that period.
A year after winning the contract, Chambers in Bradford was audited by the LAA.
The court heard Bella-Maire Jackson, a contract manager for the LAA, visited Bradford and found an invoice that showed LSS shared an address with Chambers, but the invoice had no company registration details or VAT number.
Jackson reported her concerns and the LAA launched a counter-fraud investigation.
A random selection of files showed 27 of the 46 cases Chambers was working on included claims for interpreters' fees, but there were no details of how the interpreters were contacted or appointments made.
The court heard Nina Willis, part of the LAA counter-fraud team, tried to contact Riaz, who was said to be the owner of LSS, for details about the interpreters used, but Riaz allegedly failed to respond to her phone calls, letters or emails.
Police managed to trace some of the interpreters and interviewed them in 2014.
Kealey said the interpreters had allegedly never heard of LSS and their work had been directly arranged by Chambers.
Kealey said: ‘It became clear that LSS invoices submitted to the LAA had been significantly inflated.’
Kealey said during the investigation it was discovered Riaz had a record with HM Revenue & Customs that showed him as being an employee of a firm called Five Leisure Amusements between 2008 and 2015.
A new HMRC record was created in August 2014, which stated that Riaz was self-employed and trading as LSS, but it is alleged he did this after the start of the police investigation.
Kealey said police only became aware Riaz and Ayub were brothers as their investigation continued.
Between June 2010 and May 2014, a total of £592,000 was paid into LSS accounts, including £320,000 from Chambers and £269,000 from unknown sources.
Kealey said £135,000 had been paid to Five Leisure Amusements in April 2011 and more than £30,000 had been paid to Bradford Grammar School for tuition fees for an employee’s son.
An additional £537,000 was withdrawn in cash in seven transactions between January and April 2014, after the police investigation was under way.
Kealey said the cash withdrawals had never been explained. He said: ‘No explanation has been provided by Mohammed Riaz; the only inference that can be drawn is that it was to dispose of the proceeds of dishonesty.’
Ayub, from Shipley, West Yorkshire, Frew, from Baildon, near Bradford, and Riaz, from Bradford, all deny conspiracy to defraud.
The trial continues.