Court hearings that never happened, fake documents, a non-existent social worker – a legal scam which targeted vulnerable people has been uncovered by a BBC investigation.
At the centre of the operation is Craig Johnson, who promised “award-winning legal services”.
But dozens of people say that they paid him thousands of pounds for services that didn’t happen.
The BBC also understands that he is under investigation by police in Kent and Cumbria.
A lawyer acting for Mr Johnson says he has co-operated with a professional investigation into his practices and will not discuss individual cases.
A slick-looking website
“I could get up to three months in prison” – desperately trying to hold back tears, Phil is with his wife Jenny, reflecting on the events of the past year.
In early 2023, Phil was involved in a legal battle with his ex-partner over custody arrangements for their teenage daughter. Facing the prospect of reduced access, Phil and Jenny (not their real names) sought legal advice.
Jenny came across a company called Totally ADR Ltd, which promised expertise in family law. It had a slick-looking website with beaming models in stock photos and five-star reviews from apparently happy clients. One of the directors of Totally ADR was Craig Johnson.
After a face-to-face meeting, Mr Johnson agreed to take on their case. The couple took out a loan and paid him £2,400.
Jenny says that Mr Johnson was unclear about his job title, but they thought he was a qualified solicitor when they hired him, and they expected him to represent Phil in court.
In fact, although Mr Johnson had a law degree, he had not qualified either as a solicitor or a barrister. These are regulated professions that require a significant amount of further training. To claim you are either of these when you are not, is a criminal offence.
Unless someone is qualified as a solicitor or a barrister, they do not have “right of audience” and cannot normally represent a client in court in England or Wales.
Mr Johnson had registered eight companies, with at least 15 different names, all appearing to offer legal services.
His co-director in two of these was a 53-year-old former driving instructor, Julie Blackmer, who has no legal qualifications.
On their websites they offered services such as helping clients fill out court documents, and supporting people in hearings.
These are services that can be carried out legally by someone without formal legal training, often called “McKenzie Friends”.
But according to former clients of the company, Mr Johnson would offer services he was not qualified to deliver.
Over the next few months, he told Phil and Jenny about five hearings he said had taken place without them, or had been postponed. He also told them about a social worker who had found evidence that helped their case.
Phil became suspicious, and contacted the family court about his case.
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It turned out no hearings had taken place. Mr Johnson had also made up the report by the social worker. The BBC has been able to establish that there is no social worker with the name that he gave the family.
And the five-star reviews that had attracted Jenny in the first place? Most of them appear to have been fake – many appeared in batches with very similar wording.
But there was worse to come for Phil and Jenny. They say Mr Johnson led them to believe – falsely – that the court had increased the amount of time Phil’s daughter could stay with them.
“So we kept her an extra night,” says Phil. As a result, he received an email from the family court informing him he was in breach of a court order, potentially jeopardising his case, and putting him at risk of a jail sentence.
By the time the couple realised Mr Johnson had not done what he had told them, they had only a short time to prepare for a real court hearing with a real solicitor – costing them thousands more.
“I am in a financial hole,” Phil says. “I am suffering with anxiety and depression, I can’t get my brain to switch off.”
At the time Mr Johnson claimed to be working on Phil and Jenny’s case, he was also fighting a case of his own. He had agreed to represent a man seeking to divorce his ex-wife and remarry.
After months of delay, Mr Johnson sent through a divorce certificate, which the man and his new partner thought looked fake.
They complained, and Mr Johnson was summoned to the High Court, where he admitted faking this document, and doing the same on two further occasions.
The Facebook group
In June 2023, a Facebook group was set up to warn others about Craig Johnson, Julie Blackmer and their companies. The group now has more than a thousand members.
There are accounts of made-up court hearings, documents not being filled out, cases ruined, fees and private documents taken and not returned.
One of the group members is Joe Stevenson, a mechanic from Berkshire. He asked Mr Johnson in 2021 to help with his divorce and associated issues.
“He told me that he had all these awards,” he says.
Mr Johnson asked for an initial £900 and then an extra £3,700 to work on the case.
Joe was initially pleased with Mr Johnson’s work but became suspicious after he failed to turn up for court hearings – often blaming health issues – and when paperwork for the divorce wasn’t done.
After a lengthy struggle to get his money back, Mr Johnson agreed to refund about half of it.
Since then, Joe has set up a support group for other victims of Mr Johnson. There are cases from all over the UK.
“I’ve had people on the phone crying, bawling their eyes out,” he says. “Profiting financially from that is sick.”
Several people from the group have reported their cases to their local police forces.
‘Failed to behave with honesty’
Mr Johnson does not just face complaints from dissatisfied clients.
In December 2021, three Mackenzie Friends who had worked for one of Mr Johnson’s companies complained about his practices to CILEx Regulation, a voluntary regulatory body for the profession.
Last November, it published its findings. They were damning.
It found that Mr Johnson had:
- drawn up three fake court documents
- set up a company to falsely appear as a legitimate legal regulator
- failed to disclose that he had been arrested and questioned by police over allegations of fraud
The findings repeat several times: “Craig Johnson failed to behave with honesty and integrity.”
A lawyer for Mr Johnson says he “engaged in and co-operated with the investigation”.
He was barred from being a member of CILEx Regulation for 15 years. But this does not stop him selling legal services.
Karen Dovaston, a family law solicitor and chairwoman of the Law Society Family Law Committee, thinks existing regulations do not go far enough to cover the legal services which Mr Johnson and Ms Blackmer claimed to provide.
“You’re dealing with people who are [at] a difficult time in their life with limited money, limited assets, presenting yourself to be doing things for them that you’re not.”
In late summer 2023, Mr Johnson resigned as a director from three of his most recent companies, including Totally ADR, leaving Ms Blackmer as its sole director.
A few weeks later, Ms Blackmer wrote to clients to tell them she was shutting the business because of “personal attacks”. In her letter she gives the details of an insurance policy she says will refund them and return their legal documents.
The BBC has found that while the insurance was real, the coverage would not provide refunds to clients or return their documents. In any case, the policy had been cancelled because payments were not kept up.
Mr Johnson has also told clients that he can continue working for them under the “matrix freelance” brand. Another of his websites, Courtsupporters.com, is still live.
The BBC has contacted Craig Johnson and Julie Blackmer.
Mr Johnson said he will not comment on individual cases, and Ms Blackmer has not responded to our findings.
Have you been a client of Craig Johnson? You can get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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