The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) heard that, following a file review, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) accused London law firm Ziadies of ‘systematic, gross over-claiming for both disbursements and profit costs on hourly rate cases.’
The SDT stated, ‘The LAA also found that the vast majority of files reviewed did not have invoices for interpretation on them and that interpreters had worked on files as fee-earners.’ The LAA said that ‘billing sheets bore no resemblance to the record of work done on the files’ and represented ‘egregious inflations of the work actually evidenced in the files.’ Daksheenie Abeyewardene, head of immigration at Ziadies, explained she had ‘few records to support the notes she recreated and it was a ‘best guess’ on many occasions by looking at the files to determine the work that had been carried out.’ She accepted that she could not be certain ‘who had interpreted on what day, how far they had travelled and the costs of this, as she had no contemporaneous records.’ Ms Abeyewardene accepted that ‘some of the attendance notes’ inserted into the files seized by the LAA in 2014 were improper, ‘as they were recreated for the LAA audit to satisfy the LAA that the firm was compliant with their record keeping and contract requirements.’
Ms Abeyewardene, who was admitted to the roll in 1985, accepted she had ‘failed to deal with auditors from the LAA in an open and co-operative manner,’ but did not accept ‘there had been intentional systematic gross over-charging.’ In mitigation, Ms Abeyewardene explained she had been suffering from ‘numerous and debilitating serious chronic illnesses for a number of years’ exacerbated by stress. The SDT ruled her improper claims had taken place over a three-year period and involved ‘at least £800,000 of public funds being wrongly claimed,’ and despite repayment of the £800,000 the damage to the profession was severe. The medical evidence did not amount to ‘exceptional circumstances,’ which could justify a lesser sanction than striking off. Ms Abeyewardene was struck off and ordered to pay £17,200 in costs.