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Getting an expert report in private law proceedings

 

The Court of Appeal (almost a year after the High Court ruled otherwise) have decided in JG v the Lord Chancellor and Others 2014, that a Court can lawfully decide that the costs of an expert report be bourne by one party (the one who is receiving public funding) rather than split between everyone.

 

I wrote about the original decision here http://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/04/11/not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper/  with quite a bit of disappointment in my heart, so I am pleased that the Court of Appeal have taken a different view.

 

Quick bit of context first – up until LASPO  (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Act) came into force, most private law proceedings (i.e mum and dad arguing about where a child should live, or how much time the child should spend with each parent) had at least one of the parents, sometimes both, receiving legal aid (free legal advice). That legal aid could be used to pay for expert reports  – for example, if there was a dispute over paternity, a DNA test, if one person alleged the other had an alcohol or drug problem, testing, if the child was displaying unusual behaviour an expert to help understand that.

After LASPO, people now only get legal aid in exceptional circumstances  – it doesn’t matter if they are on benefits, or have learning difficulties, they won’t get legal aid unless they fit some very narrow prescribed criteria.

Next bit of context – in particularly tricky cases, the Court appoint a Guardian (which we call a Rule 16.4 Guardian, after the bit in the Family Procedure Rules that governs it) to assist the Court in reaching decisions. The Rule 16.4 Guardian GETS legal aid.

That led to a situation in which if an expert report was needed and the parents could not afford it, the Court would order that the costs be met entirely by the Rule 16.4 Guardian (and hence legal aid).  The Legal Aid Agency cottoned on to that, and started refusing to pay (even after the expert had done the report and the Guardian’s lawyers had written the expert the cheque, leaving the lawyers out of pocket and thus reluctant to take on such cases in the future).   One such refusal was judicially reviewed, and Ryder J (as he then was, he is now Ryder LJ) refused the judicial review and said that the Legal Aid Agency was entitled to take a position that any expert costs should be divided equally between all of the parties and that the costs should not all be loaded on to the Guardian’s public funding.   [It is a little like three people going out to dinner, and putting the bill on the person who has an Expense Account, if that makes sense, and then the firm paying the Expense Account saying  “Hey, we don’t mind paying for YOUR dinner, but not for the other two”]

Ryder J did say that in an exceptional case where the parent could not possibly pay anything towards the cost of the report, and the Court considered it was vital, things might have to be looked at differently.

So, the Court of Appeal disagreed with Ryder J’s decision – but not in a way that gives carte blanche for all reports to be loaded on to the Guardian’s public funding certificate (actually the Child’s) and the parents to pay nothing. It is a bit more nuanced than that.

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/articles/jg-v-the-lord-chancellor-and-others-2014-ewca-civ-656

 

There were basically two sides to this (because it had now become an issue about principle, rather than the parents own case) – the Law Society, arguing that the Court should have the power to decide how costs should be apportioned and particularly where failure to have the report would breach article 6 (right to fair trial) or article 8 (right to family life),  and the Lord Chancellor – arguing that this should only be in a situation where the Legal Aid Agency deemed itself that it was appropriate. It’s a fundamental question of who is in charge, the Court or the Legal Aid Agency.

 

Law Society to throw first

a) The appellant’s and the Law Society’s case on the general question
67. The appellant adopted the Law Society’s submissions on the general question. The Law Society submitted that where expert evidence was necessary in the circumstances set out in the question, the court should direct the child, through her guardian, to obtain the evidence and give the child permission to adduce it, although in instructing the expert, the guardian should normally seek to agree with the other parties, if possible, which expert is to be instructed and the instructions to be given to him. The court’s direction should be subject to any prior authorisation or increase in costs limitation that may be required for the purpose. The Law Society submitted that those responsible for administering legal aid could not refuse to give such approval as refusal would be incompatible with articles 6 and 8 of the ECHR and would deprive the court of the assistance it needs to enable it to determine what the welfare of the child requires, thus being “incompatible with the object and purpose of the legislation for the protection of children involved in private law family proceedings”. There is no point, submitted the Law Society, in funding the representation necessary to protect a child’s interests in the private law proceedings yet denying the funding required to enable the evidence to be provided that is necessary to establish what the child’s welfare requires.
68. It was submitted that a requirement, such as that favoured by Ryder J (see §§75 et seq of the judgment), for a “robust scrutiny of … means” with reference to a party’s financial eligibility for legal aid prior to the instruction of the expert would present the courts with a task for which, unlike the Legal Aid Agency, they are not equipped and which would import harmful delay whilst investigations were carried out. The Law Society’s proposal was therefore said to be a better alternative because the expert could be instructed without delay on the basis that the cost of the report could be met as a disbursement on the child’s certificate, leaving the parties’ respective liability for the fees to be dealt with by means of a costs order, if appropriate.

 

Lord Chancellor, you require forty  (sorry, to go next)

b) The Lord Chancellor’s case
69. The Lord Chancellor accepted that “if there were a case in which a report was genuinely sought by the publicly funded party alone, for reasons affecting that party, and the other parties did not agree with or seek to make use of the report, then the court might direct that the cost[s] were borne by that party alone and it would be legitimate for the legally aided party to bear the full costs of that report” (§61 of the Lord Chancellor’s skeleton argument). In those circumstances, he said, the legally aided party would have to formulate the instructions without the involvement of the other parties. That set of circumstances was not what he was addressing in his main submissions.
70. In cases where expert evidence was necessary but the report was not genuinely sought by the publicly funded party alone, the Lord Chancellor submitted that the judge’s solution, which had of course largely been put forward by him, was correct. Only in “very exceptional cases” could the court depart from the norm of a single joint expert whose fees would be apportioned equally between the parties, it was submitted. Two conditions had to be satisfied:
i) “a party’s means, assessed following a robust process, are such that he or she cannot afford to pay for his or her share of the report”
and
ii) “an order for equal apportionment would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights in the family proceedings because it would prevent an expert report which the court considered necessary to the proper resolution of the case from being adduced”.
If the two conditions were satisfied, the Lord Chancellor’s case was that the court should still order a single joint expert but could visit a greater share of the costs on the legally aided party than normal, although whether the legally aided party would have to pay all the costs would depend on the circumstances.

 

The Court of Appeal then distil the arguments down to common ground and areas of difference

c) Points in common and points of difference
71. It can be seen that all parties agreed that there may be situations in which an order can be made which does not apportion the cost of an expert equally between the parties in a case. It was common ground that where this was a departure from the apportionment that would normally have been ordered, the justification for this would be that otherwise there would be a breach of a party’s Convention rights. It was also common ground that in these circumstances, section 22(4) would not present an obstacle to the order being made. The absolutist position which I think was adopted by the LSC in front of Ryder J, namely that there were no circumstances in which the LSC could be ordered to pay experts’ fees “beyond a proportion that represents the proportion of legally aided parties” (see §79 of Ryder J’s judgment), was not advanced before us.
72. Underlying matters of detail were not agreed. There was debate as to whether it was necessary to impose a requirement of exceptionality, as to when and how a party’s inability to pay should be established and, an allied question, as to whether the proper way in which to regulate the parties’ share of the fees was by regulating their contractual liability to the expert or by means of conventional costs orders. Another major difference between the parties was that the Lord Chancellor was wedded to the idea of a single joint expert (and utilised that as a significant part of the foundation for his arguments) whereas the other parties contemplated that the expert could be instructed by the child/guardian alone, albeit with input from the other parties to the instructions.

 

 

A major part of the argument was whether the report being commissioned was really one being commissioned solely on behalf of the Child, or whether it was really one for the benefit of all parties and just pretending to be a sole instruction to get the free funding   (To go back to the dinner analogy – was this really a business meeting that the Expense account could pay for legitimately, or were two people getting a free lunch?)

The Court of Appeal consider some hypothetical situations but eventually come down to this

 

84. Doing the best I can to forecast the sort of situations that may arise, it seems to me that it may not be all that infrequent that an application by a child/guardian for permission to instruct an expert will genuinely be for an expert on behalf of the child, as opposed to a single joint expert, notwithstanding that the other parties have some input into the process of approval by the court and into the format of the expert’s instruction. Section 22(4) will then present no obstacle to the cost of the expert being met by the child’s public funding.

 

But going on to say that even if it is really a joint report, and the parents can’t pay, the Court still have to consider what is right and fair

 

When the expert is not solely the child’s expert
85. If the expert is not in fact the child’s expert but is a single joint expert, and the other parties are unable to contribute to the cost of the expert, it is necessary to consider in what circumstances public funds can be required to meet the whole cost. Once again, I will confine myself in this discussion to the current provisions of the 2010 Rules.

 

The Court then looked, in a lot of detail, about whether there was a presumption in law that any report would have the costs split equally –  there is a provision in the Family Procedure Rules that says that this is what will happen in the absence of the Court saying otherwise.  Does that mean that the Court have to have reasons for deviating from an equal split, or does it just mean that if the Court is silent, that’s what happens?

92. This provision received quite a lot of attention in argument in front of us. It is perhaps rather an odd provision to find in procedural rules, appearing to concern itself with the contractual relationship between the parties and the expert. It needs to be read with Rule 25.12(4)(a) which provides that the court may give directions about the expert’s fees and expenses. It is quite clear from that, and from its own terms, that Rule 25.12(6) is not intended to be prescriptive and merely establishes a default position as to liability to the expert in the event that the court does not direct otherwise. I do not see it as setting up a “normal rule” that the cost is to be apportioned equally, any more than the Calderdale case did.
93. None of the authorities which I have just cited turned on the impecuniosity of the parties. Although they differ from the present case in that they were care cases, they are capable of providing assistance as to “the principles on which the discretion of [the] court is normally exercised” in relation to the cost of expert evidence. As I have explained, to my mind, they do not reveal the existence of a normal rule that costs be apportioned equally any more than Rule 25.12(6) does. Accordingly, in so far as the Lord Chancellor’s submissions proceed upon the basis that equal apportionment is the norm, I would question the premise. In order to decide whether a court order has fallen foul of section 22(4), a more sophisticated exercise is required. It is necessary to ask what order the court would make in its discretion on the particular facts of that case, leaving aside any resources problems. The answer may not uncommonly be an order for equal apportionment of the costs but that cannot be assumed. It may be that a full consideration of the circumstances of the case produces the result that the publicly funded party should be paying a greater share of the costs in any event, quite irrespective of any financial difficulties that the other parties may have in sharing the cost of the expert. In such circumstances, section 22(4) does not prevent the court from making an order accordingly, because the order is in no way affected by the fact of public funding.

 

That’s quite dense, but basically, what the Court of Appeal say there is that there may be circumstances (even if there is no issue over the parties ABILITY to pay) where the costs of the report might be met by one party exclusively or where one party may make a larger share, and the Court has the legitimate power to do that.

[That, to make it explicit, is the Lord Chancellor losing an argument]

 

Next – what about a situation where the Court thinks that it is FAIR to split the costs equally, but one or more parties has resource issues (impecuniosity – or in layman’s terms, they are skint)

95. In the light of what I have said in the preceding section, I would reformulate the Lord Chancellor’s submission so that, rather than focussing upon whether the court can depart from equal apportionment of the expert’s fees, it focusses upon whether the court can depart from the order that it would have made but for the resources problem (to which I will refer in shorthand as “the normal order”). The Lord Chancellor sought to impose what, for the purposes of the discussion that follows, I will treat as three conditions for such a departure from the normal order although I accept that he may well not have intended the third one to be a condition as such. The three “conditions” are that it must be established that the other party could not pay his share of the cost; the normal order would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights; and the case must be a “very exceptional” one.

 

Condition 1  (remember these are the conditions proposed by the Lord Chancellor) – an equal split would involve a breach of the party’s convention rights  – there’s a lot of this, so I have skipped to the conclusion

108. The Lord Chancellor’s argument seems to me to risk prejudicing the child in order to prevent a parent who is not otherwise entitled to legal aid deriving a benefit from a report which has been paid for by public funding. I have already emphasised that FPR 2010 acknowledge that a party may benefit from a report produced by another party’s expert without that expert becoming a joint expert. Anyone who has ever conducted or watched a successful cross-examination of an expert knows this perfectly well. The fact that a party who is not publicly funded will or may benefit from the expert’s input is likely to be a material factor in the court’s discretion as to the cost of the expert but it is not a reason to conclude, as I think is the conclusion to which the Lord Chancellor’s submissions would logically lead, that even though the child’s Convention rights would be violated by the inability to obtain the expert advice that the court had concluded was necessary to assist it, the expert could not be paid for on the child’s public funding certificate because that would benefit one or both of the parents as well.
109. It is as well to remember that cases in which the child is joined as a party are far from commonplace, as can be seen from the various provisions which I outlined earlier in this judgment starting at §39. They will be cases in which there are particular challenges in determining what is in the best interests of the child or in actually achieving the right solution in practice. The role of the child’s guardian is directed very firmly at achieving a resolution that is in the best interests of the child. His or her duties are defined and circumscribed as I have described earlier. His or her decisions must be made for the benefit of the child and he or she must make such investigations as are necessary to carry out his or her duties including obtaining such professional assistance as he or she thinks appropriate. By the time the guardian has endorsed the instruction of an expert as appropriate and the court itself has approved it as necessary, there will be the beginnings of a strong foundation for an argument that the child’s Article 8/Article 6 rights will be violated if the court cannot be provided with that expert assistance. Whether the argument will ultimately succeed will depend, of course, upon the precise nature of the decision to be taken in relation to the child.

 

It will be necessary for the parties to persuade the Court that an equal split (if that means the report can’t be obtained) would result in an article 6 or article 8 breach, but that’s not as much of an uphill struggle as the Lord Chancellor would have hoped – the parties start partway up that hill.

I reckon the Lord Chancellor   (apologies for not continually putting that title in quotation marks, since he isn’t a Lord Chancellor in the way that any lawyer or historian would recognise the role) lost that one as well

 

b) A very exceptional case
110. It is understandable that the Lord Chancellor should seek to confine the cases in which the cost of the expert would be apportioned unequally to avoid a breach of Convention rights by stressing that this could apply only in “very exceptional cases”. This approach ties in with the language of section 10 of LASPO 2012. However, whatever the immediate impact on the reader of the reference in section 10 to an “exceptional case determination”, the definition in section 10(3) makes it clear that “exceptionality” is not in fact an extra requirement and that what lies beneath the label is simply that if the services are not made available to an individual, there would (or sometimes might) be a breach of his Convention rights. I see no more justification for introducing a specific exceptionality requirement in the context we are considering here than the draftsman appears to have seen in relation to section 10 and it seems to me that it would distract attention from the central question. Granted, we are concerned with a departure from the way in which the court would otherwise have catered for the costs of the expert, so to that extent the order would be exceptional. That is a description, however, not a test or an additional hurdle.

 

That’s an indisputable loss for the Lord Chancellor.

 

c) Impecuniosity
111. It was common ground that the court would not be considering departing from the normal order unless the parties who would normally have to share the cost of the expert were unable to do so. There was debate, however, as to when and how impecuniosity would be determined.

 

There’s a risk of course, that the Court spends so long gathering information about whether or not someone is genuinely impecunious (as opposed to not keen on paying £2000 for a share of a report, which would apply to pretty much everyone) that the child’s welfare is prejudiced by delay.  There’s a difficult balance to be struck here.

112. Ryder J held, accepting the Lord Chancellor’s submissions, that “a robust scrutiny” was required of the party’s means, and said that what was a robust scrutiny would depend on the circumstances of the case but “an important consideration …. should be the party’s eligibility for legal aid where that still exists” (§76). He considered that if the party would not qualify for legal aid on the basis of their means, that was a factor that should point very strongly in favour of that party having to pay their full share of the cost of an expert’s report whereas, in contrast, if the party would qualify for legal aid, it may suggest that they should pay less than a full share, although paying nothing at all should be exceptional, bearing in mind that legally aided parties often have to pay a contribution (§77).
113. A particular concern of the Law Society was that the assessment of impecuniosity should not delay the proceedings. They were right to be concerned about that. Section 1(2) CA 1989 (see above) requires the court to have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining a question with respect to the upbringing of a child is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare. Furthermore, delay in resolving matters is capable, itself, of giving rise to breaches of Convention rights. What has happened in this case amply demonstrates that wrangles over the extent to which an expert’s costs should be met from public funds can introduce huge delay. The proceedings relating to this child were commenced in 2006, the guardian first sought a report in 2008 and the question of the payment of the expert remained unresolved in 2012 when we can see that the debate was impeding a final hearing of the case. It is quite possible that there were other problems as well as the expert’s fees but this is quite an indictment of the system. It leads me to the view that whatever system is operated must be one which is practical and not over technical and which avoids delay wherever possible.
114. The Law Society’s proposal that the child should be directed to obtain the expert evidence in the first instance with the ultimate liability for the expert’s fees being distributed between the parties by means of a costs order later in the proceedings therefore has considerable appeal.
115. The Lord Chancellor challenged it on a number of bases. Some of the arguments raised against the proposal amalgamated the issues of a breach of Convention rights and impecuniosity whereas I have dealt with these separately. Some covered the ground which I have examined when considering whether or not an expert is properly the child’s sole expert. I only reach the question of impecuniosity on the basis that the Lord Chancellor’s condition that the normal order would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights is satisfied and, as I have explained, in my view there is no third condition of “exceptionality”
116. I sensed that an understandable concern of the Lord Chancellor was that joining the child as a party and using the child’s public funding to pay for an expert would become a widely used device – a back door to public funding for parents who would not otherwise have it – and I think he saw the Law Society’s proposed scheme as a way in which to have all the benefits of a single joint expert without the non-legally aided parties having to bear the cost. He did not, however, go so far as to suggest that only those who would in fact satisfy the financial criteria for legal aid should be treated as impecunious for the present purposes but submitted that eligibility might be a useful starting point and yardstick.
117. Ryder J also saw financial eligibility for legal aid as a relevant factor and I do not disagree. In my view, the Lord Chancellor was right not to argue that satisfying the financial eligibility criteria is a necessary qualification, not least because it may well place the family courts in considerable difficulty if they had to carry out the sort of detailed and technical assessment that the LSC would use to determine financial eligibility. The challenges facing the courts in private law cases in the new post-legal aid regime are evident and they are also working hard to process care cases with expedition. It is difficult to envisage them having the resources to assess a party’s eligibility for legal aid as the LSC would do, without seriously holding up the individual case or prejudicing the rest of their work or both. But in so far as financial eligibility can be ascertained, it must be relevant. If the party in question would not qualify for legal aid, that may count heavily against an argument that they could not pay their full share of the cost of the report whereas, conversely, if they would qualify, then that may suggest that they cannot pay a full share. As Ryder J rightly pointed out, it is not all or nothing. It may be that a party could not pay a full share but could pay something towards the expert’s costs, just as they could be required to pay a contribution towards their legal aid.
118. It is difficult to forecast what financial information will be available to the court and at what stage in the proceedings. There may be cases in which a party has already been assessed for financial eligibility for legal aid and no doubt it would be appropriate to have regard to the outcome of such an assessment in those cases. In some cases, as in the present case, financial information is available because there are or have been ancillary relief proceedings. In other cases, directions will have to be given to secure the necessary information from the parties.
119. The stage at which the court can reach a final determination as to whether a departure from the normal order is required for Convention reasons is likely therefore to vary, depending on the facts. There may be cases in which the decision can be taken before the expert is even instructed, with the parties’ shares of the cost being settled from the outset. There may be others in which that would or may import harmful delay into the proceedings and in which there is no option but to adopt the Law Society’s solution of requiring the guardian to instruct the expert in the first instance, but with the intent of revisiting the question of cost, on proper financial information, later by means of a conventional costs order. The court would, not, of course, embark on that route without some cogent evidence that the other parties would not be able to pay their way in the instruction.

 

I wouldn’t call that an outright victory for either side – it seems that before a Court decides that a party is impecunious (and thus couldn’t pay an equal share, and thus the report wouldn’t be obtained) it has to decide what information about finances is reasonable to inspect – if they can be obtained swiftly then it would be considered before the expert report is comissioned, if not, then the Court may make an order that the report be paid out of the Child’s public funding, and then remedy that with a later order once the financial information is available.

 

In the individual case, the Court of Appeal decided that it was right that the costs should have been met through the Child’s public funding /legal aid, and that they differed from Ryder J’s decision.

 

For broader cases, the Court of Appeal say this

 

132. I would simply add that when judges are called upon to deal with the sort of difficult issues that have arisen here, it would be prudent for them to explain their reasons for each decision that they take in a short judgment and for their orders to be precisely spelled out.

 

[All of this boils down to a Britney Spears type exhortation –  You want an expert? You want a 16.4 guardian? You want the costs of the expert to be paid by the child’s legal aid? You want the court to say you’re impecunious?   You better work bitch]

 

 

 

 

 

Legal Aid Agency wasteful and inefficient (also important news about the Pope’s religion of choice)

Re R (Children : Temporary Leave to Remain) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/643.html

This was a private law case that really hinged on the fact that parents who were involved in difficult litigation could not agree about the mother taking the children to India on a holiday. The father was concerned that there was a risk that mother would not return from India with the children, and that India not being a Hague Convention country, that would mean a very costly and time consuming process to start litigation in India.

The Court, whilst feeling that mother’s RISK of doing that was relatively low, considered that nontheless there was a risk and the consequences could be very devastating. Within the proceedings therefore, an expert report was ordered by the High Court, determining that it was necessary to resolve the dispute justly and inform the Court. Part of that report was to examine the Indian law to see whether anything could be put in place.  The costs were to be divided equally between the mother and the Guardian’s public funding certificate.

The LAA refused to pay for this, and six months of bureacratic conversation and form-filling took place.

In an attempt to cut through all of this, King J set out in detail in an order why the report was necessary and why the costs were split in that way (rather than 3 ways – mum, dad, Guardian)

    1. I declined to proceed with the hearing as a contested hearing. I listed the application for directions before Mrs Justice Eleanor King as Family Division Liaison Judge for the Midland Circuit. The application came on before Eleanor King J for directions on 28th November. The preamble to her order contains the following:

 

‘And Upon the Court observing that:

a. the expert’s report directed at paragraph 1 of this order is absolutely necessary for the proper determination of this case; this is both the view of the learned Judge and represents settled authority from the Court of Appeal; the case cannot be fairly decided without the expert;

b. the report is appropriately the instruction of the mother and the Children’s guardian; it is not properly the instruction of the father who has already filed evidence in relation to the disputed international legal issue; the proposed report does not, accordingly, ‘support’ the father’s case; rather it is obtained by the mother to meet the case brought by the father, and is necessary for the Children’s Guardian, in order that she can advise the court from a position of informed neutrality.

c. the assertions at (b) above are determinative of the question of whether instruction is shared by the father and would be so whether or not he were publicly funded; as such s.22(4) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 is not activated;

d. any further delay in obtaining the expert report is likely to jeopardise the current hearing dates, engender further costs (including publicly funded costs) and prejudice the interests of the children.’

    1. Eleanor King J went on to order that the mother and the guardian have permission to instruct Professor Martin Lau to provide an expert opinion in relation to the relevant law obtaining in India. She approved his hourly rate (£175 per hour) and capped his fees at £2,100 plus VAT. She directed that the final hearing should take place before me.

 

  1. The Legal Aid Agency again refused to grant authority for the instruction of an expert. There has been no alternative but to determine this application without having the benefit of expert evidence. That is an issue to which I return at the end of this judgment.

 

That didn’t do the trick – as indicated, the Court actually had to determine the case without the expert report that they had already ruled was “necessary” to properly resolve the case.

This is an issue that the Court of Appeal had looked at in another case called Re R

    1. In Re R (A Child) [2013] EWCA Civ 1115 Patten LJ, giving the judgment of the court, repeated a point made in previous cases:

 

’23. The overriding consideration for the Court in deciding whether to allow a parent to take a child to a non-Hague Convention country is whether the making of that order would be in the best interests of the child. Where (as in most cases) there is some risk of abduction and an obvious detriment to the child if that risk were to materialise, the Court has to be positively satisfied that the advantages to the child of her visiting that country outweigh the risks to her welfare which the visit will entail. This will therefore routinely involve the Court in investigating what safeguards can be put in place to minimise the risk of retention and to secure the child’s return if that transpires. Those safeguards should be capable of having a real and tangible effect in the jurisdiction in which they are to operate and be capable of being easily accessed by the UK-based parent. Although, in common with Black LJ in Re M, we do not say that no application of this category can proceed in the absence of expert evidence, we consider that there is a need in most cases for the effectiveness of any suggested safeguard to be established by competent and complete expert evidence which deals specifically and in detail with that issue. If in doubt the Court should err on the side of caution and refuse to make the order. If the judge decides to proceed in the absence of expert evidence, then very clear reasons are required to justify such a course.’

 

That’s pretty compelling authority for the use of experts in that scenario – one can’t expect a UK lawyer, or a UK Judge to understand the intricacies of family law in each and every non-Hague Convention country, and it is vital to know what those safeguards might be.

The final paragraph of the Court of Appeal decision in Re R anticipates the problems of funding such expert evidence

’28. Before leaving this case we wish to draw attention to a real difficulty that seems likely to be a feature of future cases where application is made to remove a child temporarily to a non-Hague Convention state. We have already restated the importance of the court having access to clear and reliable expert evidence before being in a position to determine the application. Both parties in the present case are legally aided but counsel have confirmed that, following recent changes to the provision of Legal Aid, public funding will no longer be available to parents in these applications (save where there has been domestic violence). The question of how the necessary expert opinion is to be paid for is therefore likely to be a real issue in a significant number of cases. We see this as an additional difficulty facing judges and the adult parties (who may well themselves be litigants in person). The questions of how and to whom particular cases are allocated to individual judges are a matter for the President of the Family Division. Our present purpose is not to trespass upon the President’s responsibility but simply to flag up this new potential complication for cases which are already at the most difficult end of the spectrum. In doing so we would simply wish to repeat Thorpe LJ’s exhortation for these cases ordinarily to be dealt with by the judges of the Division.’

 

As can be seen from this case, the Court of Appeal were prescient.

Bellamy J concludes his judgment with a coruscating evaluation of the Legal Aid Agency’s failings in this case, which meant that they in effect defied the orders of High Court Judges. There’s loads of it, and if you’ve ever had to wrestle with the LAA, it warms the cockles of your heart to see them take a kicking.

The Judge opens with this

I return finally to my concerns about the negative, costly and unhelpful impact the Legal Aid Agency (‘LAA’) has had in this case. If this case is at all illustrative of the way the LAA normally discharges its responsibilities then that is deeply troubling. My concern that it might be illustrative of a wider malaise arises not only from anecdotal evidence given to me by solicitors in my role as a Designated Family Judge but also from the observations recently made by Holman J in Kinderis v Kineriene [2013] EWHC 4139 (Fam).

and then goes on to consider the labyrinthine process

    1. As a result of my order of 18th July giving leave to instruct an expert in Indian law and limiting his fees to £2,500 plus VAT, the mother’s solicitor sent the LAA an application for prior authority in LAA Form APP8. Form APP8, be it noted, is a lengthy (11 page) complex form which needs to be completed with care. Failure to complete it properly is almost certain to lead to the application being refused. Completion of this form is, of itself, a time consuming task.

 

    1. On 13th August the LAA wrote to the mother’s solicitor refusing to grant prior authority. The letter is clearly a standard letter. It sets out five reasons for refusal. In summary, these are, (i) the estimate of the expert’s fees is excessive, (ii) no alternative quotes have been obtained, (iii) there is insufficient breakdown of the costs to be incurred, (iv) the expert’s costs should be borne by or shared with the other party, (v) the application does not appear to fall within the regulations. The letter ends by saying, ‘since the introduction of the 2010 Standard Civil contract and the 2012 Family Contract there is no right of appeal’.

 

    1. On 2nd September I was asked to reconsider my decision that the cost of the expert should be borne solely by the mother. I declined. The mother’s solicitor made a second application to the LAA, again in Form APP8. That application was again refused. There followed an exchange of e-mails between the solicitor and the LAA which were discouraging.

 

    1. I have seen the APP8s that were submitted. They appear to me to have been properly and adequately completed and to have been supported by relevant documentation.

 

  1. As I noted earlier, on 28th November there was a hearing before Mrs Justice Eleanor King in which she gave new directions for the instruction of an expert. She ordered that the expert’s costs should be borne by the mother and the children’s guardian, and explained why s.22(4) Access to Justice Act 1999 did not apply. She also had a telephone conversation and an e-mail exchange with Michael Rimer, Head of Litigation Team and Senior Legal Adviser with the LAA. Mr Rimer is the agreed point of contact between the judiciary and the LAA in cases where there are funding difficulties. If that dialogue led to quiet confidence that progress could be made, that confidence was misplaced.

 

(I particularly like that last line)

and finally wraps up with this  (having recounted some spectacular missing the point emails from various workers at the LAA

    1. The applications for prior authority to instruct an expert have been going backwards and forwards between the LAA and solicitors for some six months. Although I have not been given details of the time spent by the solicitors in pursuing this issue with the LAA, it seems to me to be self-evident that it must have been considerable. This process is wasteful and inefficient. Solicitors are being required to deal with a level of bureaucracy that is almost impenetrable. They are also being required to deal with the consequences that flow from decisions that are unappealable including explaining to their clients why they cannot have the expert evidence which the court has directed is necessary. This is unsatisfactory.

 

    1. There is a further point which follows on from that last point. On 28th November Mrs Justice Eleanor King gave clear, detailed case management directions in respect of expert evidence and even went so far as to set out her reasons for not ordering the father to pay a proportionate share of the expert’s fees. Her case management directions on this issue have effectively been overridden by the LAA. That is simply unacceptable.

 

  1. In light of my criticisms of the LAA I direct that the solicitor for the Children’s Guardian shall forthwith forward a copy of this judgment to the Chief Executive of the LAA and order that he shall respond to it in writing within 28 days.

 

 

I expressed some doubt via Twitter that the response in writing would (a) ever be received and (b) ever be published, but I am reassured on both points. Once it is published in anonymised form, I will gladly report on it.

There are some “costs against third party” decisions from Courts, and it is clear that expenditure did get incurred both for the parties and the Court – it seems to me that it is legally possible to make an order for costs against the LAA.  It does raise the obvious issue with the parties that if they are being paid by legal aid, then the LAA are ALREADY paying their costs, so a costs order there does nothing at all. But it might be possible to calculate the time wasted by the High Court judges (who are not a free, or inexpensive resource) and decide that the LAA should recompense HMCS for that waste of time. If the father was paying privately for the litigation (and I simply don’t know the answer to that) then I would imagine that the wasted costs bill for that would make the £2,100 the LAA were quibbling about pale in comparison.

 

Transformers…. Cutting robots in disguise

One might have thought that in the week that LASPO kicked in, with huge chunks of areas of legal representation being taken out of the legal aid system, the Government might let those lawyers who survived and are still reeling have a little bit of respite.

 You fools! Of course not. Following some sort of Sun Tzu Art of War philosophy, the Government have decided that the best time to kick people is when they are down.

 Hence

 “Transforming Legal Aid” – a new consultation     (and we all know how ‘consultation’ works)

 https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-legal-aid

Here’s the waffle

 

6.6 Progress is currently being made to reduce the average duration of care cases through the implementation of the Family Justice Review reforms90 which should have the effect of reducing the unit cost of cases by tackling delay and streamlining cases, for example through reducing the use of experts.91 The national average duration of care cases has already reduced from around 54 weeks to around 45 weeks.92 The aim is to achieve an average of 26 weeks in all but exceptional cases, and this time limit will be enshrined in statute subject to parliamentary approval of the Children and Families Bill.93 Associated efficiencies in court proceedings are planned in support of this time limit. For example, the recent introduction of a new Part 25 of the Family Procedure Rules in January 2013 which requires the court to restrict expert evidence to those circumstances where it is necessary to assist court proceedings. This requirement will also be enshrined in statue through the Children and Families Bill94 which, subject to Parliamentary approval, is expected to receive Royal Assent next year. In reducing the commissioning of unnecessary expert reports, this requirement should also reduce the related work for solicitors. It is also expected that further efficiencies currently under development might also reduce the average number of hearings required in a case.

 

6.7 As the fee paid to solicitors for their work on a case is fixed, the cost of dealing with fewer experts or fewer hearings would not automatically adjust to reflect the likely reduction in the work required of solicitors (whereas any reduction in the number of hearings would lead automatically to a reduction in advocacy costs, as these are calculated on the basis of hearing fees). We consider that the legal aid fee paid for these proceedings should represent value for money and therefore reflect more closely the decreasing duration of cases in this area, the amount of work involved and the further efficiencies to be gained.

 

That’s all very long – what do they mean?

 Well, now that care proceedings will be only lasting twenty six weeks (which, I hasten to remind everyone is a PROPOSAL which has not even been discussed by Parliament), that will mean less work has to be done by the lawyers, so we should pay them less.

 How much less?

 Ten per cent.

 

[Never mind that we don’t actually know yet the structure that would allow care cases to be concluded within 26 weeks, or that as I pointed out yesterday, NINE YEARS of striving to get care proceedings concluded within 40 weeks has resulted in more local authorities having an average length of proceedings ABOVE 60 weeks than BELOW 40, so there is no way of knowing whether a lawyer would be doing more or less work, or whether the aspirations for 26 weeks are going to be any more effective than the last nine years of targets]

6.10 We propose to reduce the representation fee paid to solicitors in public family law cases by 10%. We consider that this is a reasonable reflection of the decreasing duration of cases in this area, the amount of work involved and the further efficiencies to be gained.

 6.11 This proposed reduction would apply to the current fixed fees under the Scheme. In addition, to promote efficient resolution of cases and avoid creating any incentive to delay, it would apply to the hourly rates that are payable where a case reaches the escape threshold.

 

And experts?

 Waffle time

 7.9 The current codified rates were introduced in October 2011. Prior to that time, there were no set rates for expert services, generally, and therefore little effective control over their cost. Instead, contracted legal aid solicitors, who remain responsible for engaging relevant experts as and when necessary, would bill the then LSC after the service had been provided and paid for, based on the fee requested by the individual expert in the particular case. The initial codification of expert rates therefore represented a necessary first step in providing clarity and control over spend on experts, while continuing to ensure access to necessary expert services as and when required.

 

 Upshot?  Fees to experts to be cut by 20 per cent

 I know that this blog is read by people who aren’t lawyers, and aren’t experts, and they may well be thinking – good, cut the costs of these fat cats. That’s certainly the Daily Mail take on it  (a good rule of thumb in life, I find, is where you find yourself agreeing with the Daily Mail take on anything, you probably need to take a hard look at either yourself or the facts)

 The reality is that if you cut the income of a group of professionals by 10% one year and 10% the next (lawyers) or 20% in one fell swoop (experts), then some of them will go under. That means less choice, less availability, more delay, less chance that the parents who need them will be able to get them.

 The ones that do keep going will be forced to do more work for less money, which means spending less time on each case.  If we want the best chance of proper justice for families, the lawyers instructed by parents need to have the ability to give the proper time that it takes to prepare a case, to form a proper meaningful relationship with the parent so that there is understanding on both sides and to give advice that is based on that solid understanding of both the facts and the people.

 And if you think this is the end of the cuts, you’d be mistaken. If the Government manage to push through removing huge swathes of free legal advice, and cut the income of those who are left by 20% in two years, they will be back again for another cut in 2014, 2015 until there is nothing left to cut. [Ideally perhaps to the point where solicitors doing family law will pay the Government for each case they take on]

 Consultation responses to this new document are due by June 2013 – the response details are on the link I started with.  I found myself seriously pondering Edmund Burke’s words when thinking about this.

Decepticon is such an ugly word, I prefer Consultatron

Our new Minister for Justice,  the Rt Honourable Mr Megatron, reporting for Efficiency Saving duty. Tremble before him

When to apply for prior authority (and how long the LSC thinks assessments take)

There has finally been some guidance published about this vexed issue. You may recall previous anguished blogs by me about this, most particularly that the last system (“don’t apply for prior authority as it will be refused, and we may arbitrarily slash the number of hours we will pay you for, but you won’t know that until the expert has actually invoiced you”) wasn’t really that workable if you factored in that (a) experts actually wanted to be paid and (b) solicitors actually wanted to get the money to pay them from the LSC, rather than out of their own pocket. Selfish of both of them, I know.

http://www.justice.gov.uk/legal-aid/newslatest-updates/civil-news/prior-authorities-for-experts-in-family-cases?dm_i=4P,18921,AV9ZJ,45QDV,

1 The LSC’s Standard Civil Contract states that there is a contractual right to seek or obtain prior authority only where: • the rate sought exceeds the codified rates introduced in October 2011, or • the item of costs is unusual in its nature or is unusually large. The guidance includes: • examples of factors that may indicate exceptional circumstances apply • benchmarks of ‘unusual’ hours below which prior authority should not be sought • ranges of hours within which prior authority applications have typically been granted for psychologists and psychiatrists, which represent the most commonly used expert types • details of expert witness information required on detailed assessment.

The guidance also confirms that prior authority is not necessary in relation to drug and alcohol tests – provided that the tests carried out reflect what has been directed in a court order. Case-by-case assessments ‘Typical’ hours outlined in the guidance are not caps. They are intended to help providers make case-by-case assessments about when they can submit prior authority applications. Prior authority itself is not a limit on the number of hours that may be carried out by an expert. Additional expert work hours may be justified on assessment, at the end of the case, to the relevant assessing authority. This may be either the LSC or the court

You are probably already spotting the gap in this new guidance. There is no sentence anywhere that suggests that the solicitor will get paid in full by the LSC for any expert report that comes within hourly rates and the benchmark number of hours. So there is still an element of uncertainty and risk. Hoorah.

But at least we now have the secret benchmarking of hours that the LSC claim to have been using. (I strongly suspect that the actual policy was just ‘cut them in half’, but I am a nasty cynical piece of work and that is just my own opinion based on lots of anecdotal observation)

They consider costs of more than £5000 per funded client to be unusual and need prior authority.

The hours above which prior authority should be applied for are:-

 

Pscychologist  (including child psychologist)  20 hours (for one party)  30 hours (for more)

 

Pscyhiatrist (including child psychiatrist)  15 hours (for one party) 25 (for more)

Independent social worker 30 hours (for one party) 40 (for more)

 

Radiologist (10 hours)

  These benchmarks include all aspects of expert service provision and not just the assessment of parties An item of costs is unusual in nature where, for example, more than 2 parties are to be assessed. The number of hours allowed on prior authority is not a cap on the work that may be done, it is authority for an amount of work based on the known relevant facts of a case at a particular time. Providers are always able to seek to justify on assessment/taxation why a greater number of hours were required

Hmmm, interesting. I’m not sure which psychologists they have identified who can read two lever arch files, assess a parent, prepare a report, possibly attend an experts meeting AND Come to Court to give evidence in under 20 hours, to establish that this is a reasonable level. [Given that most experts a year back were estimating 35 hours to WRITE the report, which I know was egregious padding and part of why they’ve been cut off at the knees, 20 hours seems very low.]

I am also a bit puzzled as to why a paediatric report, which is generally about a tenth of the size gets 75% of the hours, and why it takes an ISW 50% longer to assess a parent than a psychologist.

Also I am intrigued as to how radiologists in many of the cases I have blogged about in 2012 could be expected to have done all of the necessary work in 10 hours.

The guidance also clears up once and for all that Independent Social Workers will only get £30 per hour. You may be aware that there was a separate hourly rate of £65 per hour for “risk assessment” and many had simply attempted to switch over to that. You won’t be able to claim for “risk assessment” now in any cases that aren’t sexual abuse. [This is going to be very problematic for the important role of conducting assessments following findings of serious physical abuse, which is a very specialised piece of work and will now be either £30 an hour or farmed out to expensive and less timeous psychologists]

The Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Commission have published guidance on how expert services identified as specialist risk assessments will be paid. The guidance highlights the factors that may arise in a case which would point to it being appropriate to pay the risk assessment rate.

Factors that may typically point to the expert service being that of a specialist risk assessment expert include where:

a. The court order specifies that a risk assessment is required; and

b. The work to be done is over and above that requiring independent social work expertise, for example where: • There is a substantiated criminal allegation relevant to the case in the immediate background of the case (such as a conviction or pending proceedings for a sex offence); and • A finding of sexual abuse relevant to the case has been made by a court

c.the report is specifically required to address the risk posed as a result of the above factors.

The guidance also clarifies that in considering claims where independent social work services are provided in non-family matters the LSC will have regard to the rates set out in Community Legal Service (Funding) (Amendment No2) Order 2011. Where there is no comparable rate in the funding order – for example for a social worker providing social work services – the LSC will have regard to the comparable rates for independent social work services in family matters introduced in May 2011.

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