Two Lancashire judges have been struck off the roll of solicitors for misusing £1.5m in legal aid cash.
Stuart Roger Turner, 54, and Denis Francis McKay, 63, partners in a law firm, were both banned from practising as solicitors after a hearing of the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal.
Mr Turner, who lives in Elswick, near Preston, and Mr McKay, from Lytham, were both accused of “deliberately and systematically” failing to account for the cash when they worked at Lonsdales Solicitors – shut down in 2011 after the discrepencies were discovered.
The tribunal ruled that both men had acted without integrity and abused the trust placed in them. It also found that they had behaved with “reckless disregard” for their professional obligations and had breached the Solicitors Accounts Rules.
The pair could now face an investigation by the police. A spokesman for the City of London Police confirmed they had “received a referral from the Legal Aid Agency and enquiries are continuing.”
The hearing was told that Lonsdales, with offices in Blackpool and Preston, received payments from the Legal Services Commission (LSC), now the Legal Aid Agency, for work done for clients. But in a “large” number of cases it failed to return the money to the LSC when costs were recovered from the other side.
Turner was a District Judge on the Northern Circuit based at Bury Crown Court, while McKay, a senior partner who founded Lonsdales in 1981, was a former Deputy Costs Judge specialising in legal costs.
The tribunal heard that the pair deliberately, systematically and extensively failed to account to the LSC for at least £1.5m of public funds that had been recovered in successful litigation. The SRA closed the firm in July 2011 as soon as it discovered what had been happening.
In his defence, McKay agreed that the firm owed a considerable sum of money to the LSC which had accumulated over a number of years, but he had hoped that they could eventually repay the debt. He accepted that, with hindsight, he should have taken a different course of action.
Turner, of High Street, Elswick, denied knowing the firm were failing to report to the LSC the payment of costs received from third parties.
The tribunal said that given the severity of the matters, the impact it had had on the public, the trust the public has in lawyers and the reputation of the profession, striking both men from the roll was the only appropriate action.
Gordon Ramsay, SRA director of enforcement, said: “Solicitors hold positions of great trust, so it is essential that they act with integrity. The public needs to know that if solicitors fail to uphold these standards they will be held to account.
“Legal aid is there to support access to justice – not to fund solicitors’ practices.”
The tribunal asked for a detailed assessment of costs to be made. These will be split evenly between Turner and McKay. The pair have 28 days to appeal.
Mr McKay, of Askew Street, Lytham, said he was unable to comment until the tribunal judgement had been published.
A spokesman for the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office said: “The Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor are aware of the investigation undertaken by the SRA and the City of London Police concerning Deputy Costs Judge Dennis McKay and District Judge Stuart Turner in relation to their actions as solicitors for Lonsdales Solicitors.
“The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice agreed to defer a judicial conduct investigation until the outcome of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
“Now that the SDT has concluded their disciplinary process and both parties have been struck off the Roll of Solicitors, the judicial conduct investigation will resume.
“Both Deputy Costs Judge McKay and District Judge Turner have both voluntarily refrained from sitting in their judicial capacity throughout this process and will continue to do so until the matter has concluded.”