Former chief legal ombudsman Adam Sampson was dismissed and did not depart voluntarily, the Ministry of Justice’s most senior civil servant told MPs today.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons justice committee, permanent secretary Richard Heaton said Sampson (pictured) was ‘dismissed with notice’ last November after ‘irregularities’ were found with his expenses claims. Speaking later to the Gazette, Sampson vigorously denied that he had been dismissed.
The issue, Heaton said, came to light only after a report from a whistleblower. He added that there was a time when litigation was considered but that is now unlikely as 'there was recovery' of some monies. He did not disclose the precise amount.
Heaton’s version appears to contradict the line taken last November, when both Sampson and the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) stated that the ombudsman had resigned. Sampson confirmed at the time he had claimed expenses for work trips to London from his office in Birmingham, coming to around £20,000 in total.
Heaton said that OLC governance continues to be subject to a review from an external law firm, and the MoJ will continue to be in charge of the body’s finances in the meantime. A full explanation is expected in the OLC's annual report for 2014/15, but that is not likely to be published until January 2016.
‘I will not put this organisation [the OLC] off special measures until I am absolutely satisfied this governance is sorted out,’ Heaton told MPs.
‘We have not passed this over – it is still ongoing and [the OLC] will not get its accounting officer status and self-governance until we are satisfied the lessons are learned.’
Heaton stressed that nothing fraudulent or otherwise criminal had taken place but that the issues uncovered were not acceptable for a public sector body.
Heaton’s colleague, director general Ann Beasley, said the episode had prompted a review of all so-called ‘arm’s length bodies’ overseen by the MoJ, which had not raised any similar remuneration questions.
Conservative MP and former government solicitor Alberto Costa told the MoJ witnesses that he was ‘not convinced’ by their answers. He asked for clarification on the circumstances of Sampson's departure.
‘When a solicitor is found to have made a financial irregularity, through no fraud or criminal act, notwithstanding that the financial repercussions to the lawyer or solicitor can be very severe indeed as a result of a judgment [issued by the ombudsman],’ he said.
‘Solicitors are obliged to self-report financial irregularities and there are draconian measures if they don’t. Here we have a legal ombudsman whose role was to police those providing legal services who himself was subject to financial irregularities which only came about as a result of whistleblowing.’
Sampson told the Gazette today: 'I was not dismissed as chief ombudsman. I remained in post and was paid appropriately until May 2015, the end of my notice period. I am disappointed that the current permanent secretary seems to have been misinformed about the position.'