The lord chancellor will have to wait to see if his High Court attempt to recoup £22m in legal aid payments from the director of Blavo & Co, which was shut down by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, has been successful.
After seven days of submissions and cross-examination, Mr Justice Pepperall told barristers Rachel Sleeman, for the lord chancellor, and Robert Bourne, for John Blavo, that he is reserving judgment.
The seventh - and final - day of the hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice began with Sleeman continuing her closing submissions. The court heard that the firm was asked, after being notified of the agency's official investigation into its mental health files, to provide a list of past employees. For one individual, only the first name was listed, not the surname. The list did not include the name of the fee-earner responsible for what was described as 'effectively identical' files last week. After receiving a list of administrative and billing staff, the agency asked for more details about when they were employed but 'nothing came back'.
Sleeman said: 'It would be different if there was a disparity issue with 50 files missing and four had been provided. I would not necessarily concede it - but this is a big disparity. The [Legal Aid Agency] have got a duty to protect public funds and are concerned about clients as well. Their responsibility to public funds has to be something that's a relevant factor in the decision-making process.'
When the firm was notified of the agency's official investigation, it was required to validate 23,173 claims. Sleeman told the court on Friday that an LAA letter on 23 September 2015 stated that 996 files of the first 1,000 requested files had been nil assessed. A letter on 6 November stated that the value of those files had been nil assessed to the value of £1,043,892.62p. Files 1,000 to 6,000, which were nil assessed, had a value of £4m.
Sleeman reminded the court that out of the first 1,000 files requested, four had been provided by 13 September 2015. The court was also reminded of evidence given by Amana Humayan, former head of assurance at the agency, whose 'confidence that these files were going to come was going down on a day-by-day basis'.
Addressing Blavo's submission that it was difficult to produce files after the SRA intervened into the firm in October 2015, Sleeman said: 'One has to go back to the fact that, effectively by 14 October, where we have two months since the official investigation started and a total of 14 files have been produced. Bearing in mind they have a contractual obligation to provide them promptly, that's not prompt by any means of the imagination.'
Sleeman highlighted an express provision in the contract that the Legal Aid Agency and the lord chancellor were entitled to seek repayment even if an appeal against termination had not been determined 'if it considers there is a risk to public funds'.
Addressing questions about the accuracy of HM Courts & Tribunals' database, closing submissions ended with counsel searching it for the name 'Bravo'.
The seven-day hearing concluded with Pepperall reserving judgment. Sleeman informed the court that John Blavo continues to be subject to a freezing order.