Three years ago the future appeared bright for Asons Solicitors. Imran Akram, chief executive of the Bolton-based personal injury firm, was pictured in the local press receiving an honorary doctorate from Bolton University for his ‘outstanding contribution to the legal profession’. The family-run firm, set up by Akram in 2008 but primarily managed by his solicitor brother Kamran, had expanded from three staff to 350, making it one of the town’s largest employers.
The flamboyant Akram also appeared in a YouTube video and tweets showing off his luminous green Lamborghini – his ‘sixth in four years’.
In August last year, the firm was in the news again. Celebrating its move to a plush new office (pictured) complete with pool tables and plasma TVs, Akram told the Manchester Evening News its long-term aim was to become ‘a big employer for local people and further our investment into the Bolton economy.’
But Asons is no more. In March this year the Solicitors Regulation Authority intervened into the practice following a turbulent six months in which its financial health and operating methods were called into question.
The problems can be traced back to late last year when news of an emergency cash payment to the firm began to break.
Bolton’s cash-strapped local council handed it a £300,000 grant in a decision taken behind closed doors by council leader Cliff Morris. Morris invoked the emergency powers procedure – a tool that allows for approval of certain measures without scrutiny – to rush through the grant, which he said was for Asons to refurbish its new home.
Outraged opposition councillors and rival firms demanded to know why emergency powers were used and, as news of Asons’ financial difficulties emerged, questions turned to why the firm was given public money in the first place.
Backed into a corner and fighting headlines in the national and legal press, Morris told councillors calling for his head that he had asked professional services firm KPMG to produce a full audit of the authority’s grant-making process – a move he claimed would provide ‘transparency’.
The report, finally published last week nine months after it was first called for, provided little. In a conclusion that will disappoint those calling for the council to face consequences, the report found that the authority’s actions were ‘legal and appropriate’.
However, despite clearing the council, the report gave a damning assessment of the authority’s use of the emergency powers procedure. KPMG said Bolton had documented ‘no reason for such urgency’ in making the grant, or why it resorted to its emergency powers procedure to approve it.
The report found that:
- There was no clear audit trail regarding whether decisions made under the emergency powers procedure are ‘key decisions’ or ‘other executive decisions’;
- There was no evidence that relevant opposition members had been informed of the decision, as required by the council’s constitution;
- The emergency powers procedure differs depending on the type of decision; and
- There was no clear audit trail as to why standing orders have been waived in the course of the decision that has been made.
Despite these criticisms, the audit report concluded that ‘given the response of the council and the fact that there has been no financial loss to the public [the grant was repaid in full after the firm was shut down], there is no reason for us to exercise any of our wider powers.’
In short, the council’s actions, although questionable, were legal and it is in the clear. The council’s audit committee is due to discuss the report at its meeting tomorrow but officials appear to have already drawn a line under the affair.
Chief executive Margaret Asquith said: ‘The audit found that all decisions made around the award of the Asons grant and all other grants examined were legal and appropriate. However, we recognise that there were some issues around the council’s use of emergency powers, due diligence and monitoring, and we have already introduced new procedures to address these issues.’
Despite the council’s exoneration key questions remain unanswered about the firm’s relationship with the council.
An HMRC tax demand for £300,000 – revealed in the firm’s 2015 accounts, which also showed a £1m loss – has not been explained. Apart from the coincidence of the demand equalling the grant, there is no evidence linking the grant with the cash deficit. Asons and the council have declined to answer the Gazette’s questions on this.
Questions regarding Asons’ conduct were also raised earlier this year when the Gazette reported that the firm had agreed to pay insurance giant AXA £113,000 to settle a dispute over costs.
Any future sanctions against Asons and its principal solicitor Kamran Akram are a matter for the SRA. The Gazette understands that investigations are continuing. ‘Following the intervention on 30 March, we have not published any further decisions on either Mr Akram or Asons Solicitors,’ an SRA spokesperson said. ‘Following investigation we will decide on the appropriate course of action. There is no timescale for how long this work will take.’
But for residents, opposition councillors and other law firms in Bolton, the long-awaited audit report will provide little peace of mind.
- July 2014: CEO Imran Akram tells local press of his pride at receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Bolton
- November 2014: Akram posts now-deleted tweet of him purchasing his ‘sixth Lamborghini in four years’
- August 2016: Asons Solicitors moves into new offices in the Churchgate area of the town. Office reportedly has pool table, table football and plasma screen TVs
- October/November 2016: Reports emerge that the council had awarded a ‘secret’ £300,000 grant to Asons. Filings on Companies House show company is struggling financially and owes HMRC £300,000.
- November 2016: Leader of Bolton Council Cliff Morris defies calls to resign over the grant, which he said was for the firm to refurbish its new office. Tells council he has instructed KPMG to conduct independent audit of the process
- February 2017: Asons agrees to pay insurance giant AXA £113,000 to settle a dispute over costs
- March 2017: SRA intervenes into Asons and suspends practising certificate of principal solicitor Kamran Akram
- June 2017: SRA intervenes into Coops Law – the company set-up before Asons was shut down.
- September 2017: KPMG’s audit finds council’s actions were ‘legal’ but that there was ‘no rationale’ for using emergency powers