A law firm immigration chief has been struck off the roll after admitting to misleading the Legal Aid Agency by submitting 'improper' claims involving at least £800,000 of public funds.
Daksheenie Abeyewardene, admitted in April 1985, was a partner and sole equity member at south London firm Ziadies LLP. SRA records state that the firm closed in July 2015. Abeyewardene was head of the firm's immigration department and responsible for uploading bills to the agency in immigration matters via the firm's online portal.
Abeyewardene admitted that, between 2009 and 2012, she submitted claims to the agency she knew to be improper. She admitted that, in January 2015, she failed to deal with LAA auditors in an open and cooperative manner when she provided misleading information to satisfy the auditors that the firm was compliant with record keeping and contractual requirements. The judgment, published this week, states that Abeyewardene admitted her conduct was dishonest and that her level of culpability high.
Abeyewardene put forward several mitigating factors. While she accepted that she failed to check billing sheets, that they may not have been accurate and that all the claims may not have been justified, she did not accept that there was intentional systematic gross overclaiming. When she inputted data on the agency’s bulk upload system, she believed the billing sheets reflected the work that was done.
Abeyewardene repaid the agency £800,000 after remortgaging her property and relying on funds saved for her pension. She voluntarily notified the Solicitors Regulation Authority about the possible risk of overclaiming in April 2015.
The tribunal said Abeyewardene suffered from 'numerous and debilitating serious chronic illnesses which have caused cognitive decline'. The judgment states: ’She accepts that due to the pressures of work and her illness she delegated tasks to others to relieve the burden on her but failed to properly supervise or check that work was done in respect of claims made for interpreter time, expenses and profit costs. She accepts that pressures of work and her ill health led her to neglect administrative matters and compliance.'
The SRA and Abeyewardene agreed that a strike-off and an order to pay the regulator's costs fixed in the sum of £17,218.75 was an appropriate outcome.