A prominent legal aid firm has been rebuked by the Solicitors Regulation Authority after making referral payments to an introducer for clients who received public funding.
Harrow firm Duncan Lewis Solicitors agreed to the publication of a regulatory settlement agreement following the SRA’s investigation.
The decision, published on the regulator’s website yesterday, states that Duncan Lewis entered into an arrangement with the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) for the referral of clients seeking urgent legal assistance.
The NCDV carried out preparatory work on the cases, such as obtaining the client’s witness statement, before referring the client to the firm.
The firm paid the centre £170 plus VAT for each referral. The cases referred by NCDV benefitted from public funding.
Duncan Lewis did not tell the clients referred by NCDV that the firm had paid a fee.
The firm admitted that, by making payments to an introducer in respect of clients who have the benefit of public funding, it failed to achieve outcome 9.6 of the SRA’s code of conduct. By failing to inform clients of any financial or other interest which an introducer had in referring the client to the firm, it failed to achieve outcome 9.4 of the code.
The SRA said the firm’s conduct was 'neither trivial nor justifiably inadvertent’.
However, the regulator took into account mitigation put forward by the firm. It said that Duncan Lewis had: stopped paying referral fees to NCDV; complied with the SRA’s investigation, made admissions and apologised for its conduct; and it had reviewed its procedures and made changes to reduce the risk of similar breaches occurring again.
Duncan Lewis agreed to be rebuked, fined £2,000 and pay investigation costs in the sum of £1,350.
In a statement, Duncan Lewis said today: 'The firm entered into an arrangement with the NCDV in good faith, relying on an external guidance note of May 2007. Having been notified by the SRA that it intended to review that arrangement, the firm immediately suspended its arrangement with NCDV.
'In the course of that review the firm volunteered an admission that the external guidance note relied upon was incorrect and that a fee paid to the NCDV for services provided constituted a referral fee. The firm does not intend to rekindle its arrangement with NCDV. The SRA has noted that the firm complied with its investigation, made admissions, apologised for its conduct, reviewed and made changes to its procedures to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.'