Two former Fylde coast judges have been struck off for using £1.5m in legal aid cash to prop up their business.
Stuart Roger Turner, 54, and Denis Francis McKay, 63 – partners in a law firm in Blackpool – have both been banned from practising as solicitors after a disciplinary tribunal.
Mr Turner, who lives in Elswick and Mr McKay from Lytham, were both accused of “deliberately and systematically” failing to account for the cash when they worked for Lonsdales Solicitors – which was shut down in 2011 after the discrepancies were discovered.
The Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal ruled the pair had acted without integrity and abused the trust placed in them.
It also found they had behaved with “reckless disregard” for their professional obligations and had breached the Solicitors Accounts Rules.
The issue has now been referred to City of London Police who today confirmed officers are making inquiries about the matter.
The hearing was told Lonsdales, which had 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 number of cases Lonsdales failed to return the money to the LSC when costs were recovered from the other side, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said.
Mr Turner was a District Judge on the Northern Circuit based at Bury Crown Court, while Mr McKay, a senior partner who founded Lonsdales in 1981, was a former Deputy Costs Judge specialising in legal costs.
The tribunal heard the pair 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.
In his defence Mr McKay agreed the firm owed a considerable sum of money to the LSC which had accumulated over a number of years, but he hoped they could eventually repay the debt.
He accepted, with hindsight, he should have taken a different course of action.
Mr 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 on the public and the reputation of the profession, striking both men from the Roll of Solicitors was appropriate.
Gordon Ramsay, SRA director of enforcement, told The Gazette that when concerns were raised about Lonsdales, his organisation commissioned an investigation of the firm’s accounts.
He said: “It became apparent they were using their legal aid to prop up the business over a number of years, totalling £1.5m. This was a quite clear cut case for us.”
Mr Ramsay said the lawyers’ actions would not have directly impacted their clients in Blackpool.
“It’s the UK tax payer where ultimately this money comes from,” he added.
“Really, this is about solicitors who you would expect to be running a proper business.
“When you go to a solicitor you expect them to be someone who is professional and who acts with integrity – someone you can trust.
“The tribunal has found these two abused that trust.
“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 Mr Turner and Mr McKay. The two men have 28 days to appeal.
A spokesman for the Legal Aid Authority said: “We reported our concerns to the SRA, note the decision of the disciplinary tribunal and have reported the matter to the City of London Police.
“The necessary steps have been taken to recover the money for the Legal Aid Fund which is tax payers’ money.”
A spokesman for the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office said: “Now the SDT has concluded its 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.”
City of London Police confirmed it had “ received a referral from the Legal Aid Agency and inquiries are continuing.”