Northern Ireland

Fine handed down to barrister overturned earlier decision to return money to state agency

Barrister fined after being caught filing false legal aid invoices
Barrister fined after being caught filing false legal aid invoices

A £50,000 fine handed down to a barrister overturned an earlier decision that money be handed back to the agency overseeing legal aid.

Gavyn Cairns was given the largest fine ever for failing to maintain proper records after he was found to have filed false legal aid invoices. He was also suspended for two months for bringing the profession into disrepute.

The £50,000 fine handed down by the Bar of Northern Ireland will go to Inn of Court, which provides facilities for barristers.

Mr Cairns attempted to bill for a total of £568,000 from the Legal Services Agency (LSA) over a period of five months for criminal work he claimed to have carried out between 2003 and 2012. It was found that £133,000 was legitimately earned.

On 51 separate dates Mr Cairns claimed he was in consultation in excess of 15 hours per day. In 31 of those the lowest was 17 hours and the highest 29.5 hours.

The LSA became suspicious and investigated before alerting the PSNI.

Mr Cairns was investigated for fraud but there was no prosecution.

Following its own investigation, a Bar disciplinary committee ruled he should pay the £133,000 to the LSA as part of its punishment. But the appeals panel disagreed with this decision while also noting there is no precedent, and no mechanism, to move money from the Bar to the LSA.

In its ruling, the appeals panel said the fine is believed double the highest ever handed down in the north.

It added that in connection with “the most serious offence of bringing the profession into disrepute, a fine is not enough”.

“A suspension is clearly merited in addition to the fine imposed on the other charges,” the panel added.

“This will be the first occasion when a suspension has been ordered in our jurisdiction for such misconduct. Flowing from this the message should be clear how seriously this case and any future cases will be dealt with and that it will act as a deterrent. In our view the maximum suspension that could be applied is around six months before applying mitigation.

“Taking into account the points raised in mitigation particularly the length of time this case has been hanging over Mr Cairns and the effect of a suspension in a small jurisdiction…we will reduce the length of suspension to two months. We consider that the overall penalty of a fine and suspension for two months is proportionate.”

The panel accepted there was an "absence of dishonesty" in this case.

* This article was amended on October 26 2022