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LAA LAA land (or judicially reviewing the legal aid bods and winning)

Ooh, exciting.  I am grateful to M’learned friend Miss Eleanor Battie of counsel for highlighting this case to me.

T, R and Legal Aid Agency 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2013/960.html

Miss Battie has done a very good summary of the case here, on the UK Human Rights blog

http://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2013/05/02/laa-must-give-reasons-about-funding-expert-assessments-in-care-proceedings-eleanor-batty/

In essence, you may recall that the Legal Aid Agency (previously the Legal Services Commission, previously the Legal Aid Board) implemented, with the express authority of Parliament, a series of measures aimed at reducing the burgeoning costs of expert assessments.  That was a fairly laudable aim, there could be no doubt that we had reached a point where the demand for expert reports was so exceeding supply that there was almost a housing-style bubble with experts being able to name their fee if you wanted them to do the work.

Unfortunately, and in classic State grasping control of an issue style, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

Almost every case involving an expert became embroiled in a battle of bureaucracy  (I am reminded of A P Herbert’s beautiful expression “I have been engaged in exhaustive, if one-sided correspondence”) where solicitors got the Court to agree the expert assessment that was needed to fight for their client but then it couldn’t happen because the LAA wouldn’t agree to pay for it.

This culminated in the issue coming before the then President of the Family Division, Wall LJ, who found that his request for a representative of the LAA/LSC to attend and clarify things wasn’t complied with, and when he telephoned, was told more or less (and this isn’t really an exaggeration) Oh, we don’t attend court hearings when we’re ordered to, we get so many of those orders, we just ignore them.

But the President reluctantly concluded that the power to order assessments and order that they be paid for (arising from section 38(6), the Family Procedure Rules and the Calderdale case) had evaporated, and it was now the LSC/LAA who had the final say, not the family Court.

This was in A Local Authority v D S and Others 2012 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2012/1442.html

where the President wove a fairly cunning trap for the LSC, although told them up front that this was a trap, and they should be ready for it, that a careful judicial decision that a report was necessary, coupled with careful analysis of why and why the costs were proportionate, would probably pave the way for a judicial review of an unreasonable refusal.

And so we arrived at a mountain of preambles in every single case involving an expert, just in case anyone was going to judicially review the LSC.

We also, in the interim, had Ryder LJ determine that the LSC had the power to say no to paying the costs of an expert assessment where the Court had decided one was needed but the parents had no funding and no money to pay for it.

So, we arrive now at this case, where once again, the Judge asked the LSC to attend/communicate with her and they declined to do so.

The judgment and order directing the expert assessment was very careful and completely D S and Others compliant, yet the LSC refused the assessment.

In the judicial review, Collins J, who accepts from the outset that he is not a family Judge (and thank heavens for that, given that he actually seemed prepared to put the child first, rather than the LAA’s interest), makes it plain that the LSC /LAA have the power to refuse or partly refuse the costs of an assessment ordered by the Court, but that if they do so, they HAVE to give reasons, and the reasons have to take into account that a Judge who knows the case and all of the issues gave a careful judgment saying that the report was necessary.

 [I'm a bit saddened that Collins J, in an otherwise magnificent judgment, resisted the temptation to say "The LAA have great power, but as Spiderman could tell us, with great power, comes great responsibility".  This is why I will never, ever be made a Judge]

The LAA plead the impossibility of this, saying effectively that they say no so often that they don’t have the resources to give reasons each time.

Collins J rolls up his sleeves, takes firm hold of the baseball bat, and knocks that one clean out of the park.

  1. While there is no statutory requirement for reasons to be given by the defendant, the law has developed to require reasons where fairness so dictates. Cases such as these where children may be removed from parental care involve Article 8 of the ECHR and the welfare of the child which is paramount. There is an obvious requirement that all proper steps are taken to enable a judge to reach an informed decision when dealing with those rights. The parties and the court are in my view clearly entitled to understand why a refusal to allow what the court has considered necessary has been made so that it can, if appropriate, be challenged speedily.
  1. The letter of 19 March 2013 gives no reasons to explain why the full sum put forward is not approved. Since the defendant appeared through its representative, Mr Michael Rimer, at the hearing of S it was clearly aware of the President’s guidance. Guidance in this field from so authorative source as the President, in a reserved judgment after hearing submissions from, amongst others the LSC, gives rise to a public law duty upon the LSC, capable of being enforced, as the President said, by judicial review. Ms Hewson has sought to rely on the real difficulties faced by the defendant in dealing with the increasing number of applications for prior approval. In the S case it had been shown that following the new funding order in October 2011 introduced as part of the legal aid reform programme designed to save costs applications for prior approval of experts increased from 216 in November 2011 to 1855 in April 2012. That increase has, I was told, continued. Ms Hewson said that 4 employees in an office in Wales now had to deal with some 100 applications each week. That I suspect was something of an exaggeration but the point she was seeking to make was that the burden on those responsible for making the decision was such that they did not have the time to enter into any discussion nor to give any substantial reasons. Attempts to save costs in one way can have an effect which increases costs in another. If as a result of the new rules introduced in October 2011 greater pressure is imposed resources must be provided to meet that pressure. In R(H) v Ashworth Hospital Authority [2003] 1 WLR 127 at paragraph 76 Dyson LJ said this:-

“I absolutely reject the submission that reasons which would be inadequate if sufficient resources were available may be treated as adequate simply because sufficient resources are not available. Either the reasons are adequate or they are not and the sufficiency of resources is irrelevant to that question.”

These observations apply a fortiori where there is an absence of reasons when reasons are required.

I have to say, that I am delighted with the outcome, but rather surprised that the facts of this case got it. The expert assessment was for 180 hours, and the LAA originally agreed 130.

Given that their guidance figures for assessments are FAR FAR FAR below that, and the assessment costs as a whole were over £31,000 when the usual cost of an assessment has now come down to under £5,000 , the LAA would have had, I think, a decent case (had they (a) given reasons and (b) you know, bothered to file a skeleton argument in the JR case) for saying that the costs in this case were wildly disproportionate   (those costs are rather more akin to the residential assessment that the LAA suspected this was in disguise)

 

So, if you do get a cost of an expert declined, make sure you get the reasons from the LAA, and remember that scarcity of resources to give good reasons don’t make inadequate reasons adequate…

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.

Passing the prior authority parcel

I’ve talked before about the new decision of the LSC to not grant prior authority for cases any more, and why that is actually worse that the already awful situation we had pre October   (as they won’t now tell anyone what they consider to be a reasonable amount of hours for the assessment, and there’s no mechanism for finding that out before the costs are refused, we are all in the dark)

I’ve been sent this proposal via ALC  – Association of Lawyers for Children   (and will print it in full – I commend them for trying to tackle the problem, but there’s no way in hell anyone representing my Local Authority will be instructed to agree to an order in those terms.  I don’t blame the ALC for advising their members that they can’t put themselves on the financial hook for the shortfall in fees, and I understand that they don’t want the proceedings delayed whilst we work out what the hell to do with the expert, but there’s no way that I am agreeing for my authority to be on that financial hook because the LSC have difficulties in arranging a beverage-consuming party in a beverage-manufacturing facility)

Anyway, without further ado – here’s the ALC’s letter and proposal. Perhaps the LA in your area are more flush, or kinder than I am. (The former certainly not, the latter, possibly)

As members will be aware from the LSC’s announcement on its website headed “Prior authorities for civil experts – revision to processing”, posted 30th August 2012, the LSC are no longer willing to concern themselves, in considering the grant of prior authority, with the number of hours work to be carried out by an expert, unless the number of hours requested is “unusually large”.  Since the MoJ/LSC decline, pending completion of research they are presently engaged upon, to formulate what constitutes a usual number of hours, it is probable that, in practice, they will decline to deal with most, if not all requests regarding approval for number of hours.  These will be at risk, in effect, and the standard letter clause approved by the ALC and other representative bodies indeed covers that.

Almost all prior authority requests are accordingly only to be made now in respect of hourly rates (where necessary, having regard to relevant SI schedule and criteria).

Further discussions are being held between representative bodies and the LSC on 8th October 2012, in an attempt to speed up the process of obtaining clarity as to what are considered to be appropriate numbers of hours, and filling in the blanks as to hourly rates for various expertises.   However, the MoJ has already indicated that it prefers to deal with amendments by way of statutory instrument, rather than guidance, and it may well be the spring of 2013 before we have any clearer picture.

We continue to hear of cases in which the LSC take an inordinate amount of time to process applications for prior authority for experts to be instructed at a rate higher than the standard rate, so that the prior authority is not available for a hearing at which it is intended to obtain authority to instruct,  or decline altogether to grant such authority, despite solicitors having used the guidance and recited the terms set out by the President at paragraph 54 of his judgment in A Local Authority v DS,DI,DS, 31st May 2012,  [2012]EWHC 1442 (Fam).

In such circumstances it is important for practitioners to bear in mind that their firms are at risk in respect of any excess fees.

It is clearly unsafe  to agree to instruct, or be a party to instruction of an expert at an hourly rate which exceeds the standard rate for the expert, unless and until prior authority is in place for that hourly rate, and you have seen a copy.   If you proceed nevertheless, you risk making your firm liable for the relevant proportion of the shortfall between the hourly rate you are agreeing to, and the standard rate, multiplied by the relevant proportion of the hours worked by the expert.  This could be quite a lot of money   – e.g. agreeing in advance to a half share of a psychological report involving 25 hours work and an excess fee of £33 per hour [150 instead of 117 e.g.] could cost your firm over £400.

It seems that at present we can expect little assistance from the judiciary in rectifying matters after the event. The standard position of any hard pressed local authority will be that they are unwilling to pick up the difference and will resist an order being made on the basis that “all this ought to have been sorted out before by the respondent’s solicitors”.

The only safe way, we think, for members to protect their firms is to decline to proceed with the instruction of an expert until prior authority has either been granted, or refused by the LSC.

Of course this means delay.  It is almost certainly going to be inimical to the interests of the child and also of any parent/relative for whom we act.

However, we cannot help it if the government on the one hand wants everyone to cooperate in speeding up proceedings, but on the other will not permit the LSC to operate a system which assists in that process.  Judges need to understand the problem, and to realise that, until the issue is sorted out by the MoJ/LSC, they really have no choice but to adjourn the issue of instruction of that expert until the prior authority is through. The case of A Local Authority v DS,DI,DS cannot be relied upon to protect the solicitors for publicly funded parties.   Further, if prior authority is refused, courts  will then have to deal with how the shortfall is to be met, provisionally at least.   It will help if you draw to the court’s attention that the court’s own case management information system, in place now for some 6 months or so, known as CMS, specifically includes, as a reason which can be entered on the system to explain the need for an adjournment,  “Prior authority from LSC not available” – this is in the section of the CMS record headed “Case Management”.

You may want to use/adapt the following template (drafted earlier this week) for cases where prior authority has been refused, but the instruction of the expert must, in the parties’ interest nevertheless go ahead if at all possible, and so must be underwritten by the local authority – it includes the possibility that, at the conclusion of the case, the LSC will in fact pay the fee either at the requested hourly rate or at an intermediate rate:

[by way of recital]  “The court being advised that the Legal Services Commission has declined to give prior authority for the instruction of []  at the hourly rate referred to, and approved by the court in the order of [] dated [] at paragraph []

[by way of order]    “In respect of the fees of [] for preparation of reports in these proceedings, attendance at any experts’ meeting and attendance at court to give oral evidence the local authority shall, in respect of the []shares directed to be paid by the Respondents under their public funding certificates, pay to each of the Respondent’s solicitors a sum equivalent to the number of hours work attributable to their []share multiplied by £[],  ["the local authority's excess contribution"].  These payments shall fall due upon delivery of the relevant fee notes, so as to enable the Respondents’ solicitors to make payments on account to the expert.   In the event that the Legal Services Commission assesses the experts fees, following conclusion of the case, at the hourly rates approved by the court in its order of [], or at a rate higher than the hourly rates set out in the Community Legal Service (Funding)(Amendment No 2) Order 2011, then the Respondents’ solicitors shall forthwith repay to the local authority’s solicitors the local authority’s excess contribution or the appropriate rateable proportion.”

We consider the present position to be deeply unsatisfactory, but pending clarification through judicial review or otherwise,  we need to draw members’ attention to the need to stand firm on this issue – most practitioners’ margins have been squeezed quite enough this year without the need to expose themselves to these risks.

Alan Bean and Martha Cover
Co-Chairs

has a point been spectacularly missed? (warning, contains some maths)

 

Or math, if you’re American, in which case “hello, and you really don’t need to read this”

 

The LSC have decided that from 1st October 2012, any application for Prior Authority on experts will be refused (unless it is a request which goes above the codified hourly rates).  They point out, unsurprisingly, that 70-90% of applications for psychologists are within the codified hourly rates and that it is a time-consuming and intensive process to deal with all of these requests.

 

So, we’re left with – if your expert is on or below the codified rate you are okay to instruct them, and can’t seek Prior Authority to make sure your costs will be paid. And if they’re above, well then you can ask if that’s okay (but they’re going to say no, so save your breath for blowing up balloons)

 

I know that even Stephen Hawkins was told before his book “The Brief History of Time” was completed, that every equation in it would cut sales figures in half, so he only included one, and that’s the one that everyone already knows, though they don’t understand it.  But we need a little bit of maths to show why this new procedure might be even worse than the last one.

 

Pre October example   – the parties want to instruct Dr Walter Bishop to undertake a psychological assessment. They get the quote, which is £150 an hour, for 40 hours.  There are four parties (which makes the maths easier, hooray!). The parties apply for prior authority, as each of them as liable for £1,500.  The LSC say “We agree the hourly rate, but want to halve the time, so you can all have £750″.   The parties then have to decide whether to (a) beat Dr Bishop down to 20 hours (b) get him to take less total money (c) pay the difference of £750 out of their own pockets (ha!) or (d) look for another expert.  All very time-consuming and far from child-centred, but what we avoid is Dr Bishop spending money that he won’t get paid for, or putting solicitors on the hook.

 

Post October example – the parties want to instruct Professor Farnsworth, and he says “good news everyone, I’m available.”  He gives a quote of £150 per hour for 40 hours. So each party is responsible for £1500.  But, the publicly funded parties can’t ask the LSC if they are happy with the 40 hours, and any application for prior authority will be refused (so the assessment couldn’t happen at all).  Now, somebody has to take a risk. If the expert produces a final bill of £6,000, the LA can stump up their share of £1,500, but who knows how much money the three publicly funded parties will get. If the LSC run true to form and arbitrarily slash the hours and here’s the nub – after those hours have been incurrred ,  there’s a risk that the expert will be £2,250 out of pocket, or three solicitors will be £750 out of pocket.

 

Without telling solicitors up front, how many hours are acceptable for an assessment  (even if it was  a generic figure for which exceptions could be sought),  there is now a risk that either the expert or the solicitors will be out of pocket.  The risk on the expert is obviously three-fold, since Professor Farnsworth stands to lose three times as much as any individual solicitor.

 

Professor Farnsworth’s horrified reaction to not getting his fee paid.

And there’s no way, any more of knowing up front, whether the LSC will pay for the hours the expert has spent on the case, because you can’t ask for Prior Authority.

A lovely little incidental from this is that for ISWs, who have been badly hosed by the whole codified rate thing, there is now far less risk for the solicitors  (because the hourly rate is so much less, the risk per hour spent that the LSC cut costs less) and instructing a psychologist with the hourly rate around the £150 plus mark becomes terribly risky.  [using the hours above, the ISW would be £30 x 40 hours -£300 each, and if the hours got cut in half, each solicitor would be short of £150, rather than £750]
But if I were an expert wanting to do public law family work, I’d want to know up front, if the LSC aren’t guaranteeing to pay my hours, who bears the risk in the event of shortfall? Because if you think it is me, I’m not going to do work for you, certainly not more than once.  And the solicitors can’t take a £750 hit on profit costs on fixed fee work, because it makes taking the case worse than not having been involved at all.

 

Easy fix, and maybe they intend to do this, or have done so, but tucked it away somewhere and not told us.   (See the Beware of the Leopard post about how public bodies tend to hide the important stuff away)

 

Type of assessment   – hours allowed     – additional hours allowed for each party being assessed

 

Or, but they’ll never do this – the LSC declare that they will honour all expert fees where the Court has approved the hours in the estimate  (the Court obviously being seized of the case and having a proper understanding of the issues, the papers, the complexity and how long it takes to do a proper assessment)

 

Fix please, because otherwise, your solution to the Prior Authority problem has unintentionally paralysed experts and solicitors by fear of capricious hour-slashing and the financial risk of who loses out.

some titbits from the Justice Ryder talk

 

A few pieces of information that weren’t necessarily known before, that emerged from a talk he kindly gave in my neck of the woods.  I arrived late, so if I missed any announcement about Chatham House rules, I’ll obviously take this down.

 

1. There is a judicial review lodged about the LSC and whether they were reasonable in a particular case in refusing funding. From the very little that was given away, it seems to be a case involving private law, and parents who could not afford an assessment deemed important by the Court, so the report was commissioned and the costs directed to the Guardian’s public funding certificate. No timescales for when this will be heard.  The Judge was obviously very circumspect, and appropriately so, and did not discuss any detail or view of the case, but merely passing on that such a case was in the pipeline.

 

2. In drug and alcohol cases where longer testing is required, they might be able to exceed the 26 week limit -BUT it would be after the Court had inspected the evidence and considered that the timetable for THAT child warranted the case going beyond 26 weeks.

 

3. They have been discussing what to do with family and friends who present as viable but come forward very late in the proceedings; one possibility being actively considered is whether the Care Order be made (with the Court effectively determining that the child won’t live with parents)  and then the Placement Order/SGO/residence application be ‘uncoupled’ from the care proceedings and dealt with after assessments are done.

 

4. The judiciary are alive to the idea that when Parliament constructs the statutory framework for 26 week time cap, the exceptions need to not be based solely on complexity – the particular example given was of a first time teenage mother who just needs a longer period of monitoring and testing and learning, and whilst that wouldn’t be complex, there could well be a need for the case to go beyond 26 weeks. The suggestion was that the Court would need to consider and record on the orders why the timescale for that child went beyond 26 weeks. In order to present a balanced picture to the legislators, Justice Ryder was suggesting that Courts should ideally be recording that sort of thing on orders now, to build up a proper framework of what sort of cases genuinely need more time.

 

5. It did sound like the LSC might be having second thoughts about the Pandora’s Box of prior authority, and the senior judiciary are talking with them about possible solutions.

 

It was an interesting talk, delivered well, all questions given proper answers,  and even my cynicism wavered slightly. It does honestly sound as though they mean it this time – change is a’coming.

Finally – resolution on prior authority!!!! (sort of, but not really)

Our beloved President (and honestly, no sarcasm here, I am delighted!) has finally tackled the Prior Authority issue.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2012/1442.html

In DS & Ors (Children) 2012.     (Am a little sad that I didn’t get to be the one who got to run the case, having expended quite some time on the issue, but delighted that it is finally gripped)

Interestingly, the President takes a different view to me on whether the LSC have law on their side here.

Para 38 For present purposes, the law can be taken quite shortly. To the mind of the lawyer it remains curious that an administrative body can effectively render nugatory a judicial decision taken in what the court perceives as the best interests of a child. Where the party or parties who seek to instruct an expert are publicly funded, however, there is no doubt that the LSC has the power, given to it by Parliament, to refuse to fund the instruction or to fund the instruction in part only. Moreover, the LSC undoubtedly has the power, deriving from the same source, to cap the level of fees which may be expended by the expert at a given level. That is undoubted the law. Lawyers may complain that this is an unfair state of affairs, or that they cannot find experts who will work at the rates laid down. Their remedy, if they take the view that the decision of the LSC is Wednesbury unreasonable or can be struck down for any other public law reason, is to apply for judicial review.

If I recall correctly, both Calderdale and Lambeth (the cases I think mean that the Court takes precedence over the LSC internal policies) are both High Court, so the President is not bound by them, and distinguishes them in any event by saying that the Statutory Instrument which sets out how the LSC have capped expert fees is binding.  (In my humble opinion, it would be binding, had the draftsmen remembered to put something into the SI that said that it was binding on the Courts, but such is life).  A closer inspection of this authority shows that Justice Wall specifically refers to Calderdale on the issue of splitting costs, so I am certain that the argument that the Court pushes the LSC around, not vice versa, is, I’m afraid over. And we lost.

The law, as it stands then, is that the LSC DO have the power to bind the Court, and Mr Justice Wall suggests that the remedy is a judicial review if the LSC are acting in a Wednesbury unreasonable way. Presumably, the LA as a body with locus standi, could launch that JR if the LSC decision was delaying a case, because heaven knows the last thing a publicly-funded solicitor who depends on the LSC to process claims and write cheques wants to do is hack off the paymaster.

Here is some very helpful concrete guidance – as much of it places onerous tasks on the Judge/Magistrates if granting approval for an expert, expect to have a harder task over the next few weeks in getting an expert past the Court.

Guidance

    1. In all the circumstances of this case, therefore, I feel able to offer the following general guidance:-

 

i) The words “the cost thereof is deemed to be a necessary and proper disbursement on [a named individual's] public funding certificate” (or words to equivalent effect) should no longer be used when the court orders a report from an expert. The words do not bind the LSC or, for that matter anybody else. In addition, there must be doubt about the court’s power to make such an order. It is, in my judgment, far better to follow the words of the Regulations, particularly if the court is being asked to approve rates in excess of those allowed by the Funding Order. A copy of such an order is attached at the end of this judgment.

ii) The test for expert evidence will shortly import the word “necessary”. The question which the court will have to ask itself is whether or not the report of the expert is necessary for the resolution of the case. FPR rule 25.1 will shortly be amended to insert the word “necessary” for “reasonably required” and there will be a new Practice Direction.

iii) It is the court which makes the order for the instruction of an expert, and this responsibility neither can nor should be delegated to the parties. It is of the essence of good case management that the court should identify the issues on which it wants the expert to report. It would thus be helpful and important for the tribunal to be able to say – if it is the case and the hard pressed Tribunal with a long list has had the time – that it has read all the (relevant) papers.

iv) If the court takes the view that an expert’s report is necessary for the resolution of the case, it should say so, and give its reasons. This can be done by a preamble to the order, or by a short judgment, delivered at dictation speed or inserted by the parties with the judge’s approval. I have considered this point carefully, and have come to the conclusion that this does not impose an undue burden either on the court or the profession.

v) There is no substitute for reasons. A consent order is still an order of the court: it is a judicial decision and must be supported by reasons. Equally, a decision by the LSC is a decision. It too should be supported by reasons.

vi) “Reasons” in circumstances such as these need not be lengthy or elaborate. They must, however, explain to anyone reading them why the decision maker has reached the conclusion he or she has particularly if the expert is seeking to be paid at rates which are higher than those set out in the table in Schedule 6 of the Funding Order

vii) Speed is of the essence in proceedings relating to children. An application for prior authority must be made at the earliest opportunity and, once again, must be carefully drafted and supported by reasons.

viii) By like token, it behoves the LSC to deal with such applications promptly and, particularly if the application is being refused, or only granted to a limited extent, to give its reasons for its decision. Once again, the reasons can be concise. Of course the solicitor seeking prior authority can go ahead regardless, and instruct the expert at the rates the expert demands, but such a suggestion, in reality, is unreal. The expert’s contract is with the solicitor, and if he or she does not recover the expert’s costs from the LSC, it is the solicitor who is liable. Given the exiguous rates of remuneration, this is a risk no solicitor is willing to take, particularly where the client is impecunious.

ix) Similar considerations to those set out above apply to any challenge to the LSC’s ruling.

x) If a case is urgent, it should be so marked and the reasons for its urgency explained.

xi) Courts should familiarise themselves with Part 25 of the FPR and with Practice Direction 25A which supplements it. Specifically, they should be aware of paragraph 4.3(h) or its equivalent when amended which provides that the person wishing to instruct an expert must explain to the court why the expert evidence proposed cannot be given by Social Services undertaking a core assessment or by the Children’s Guardian in accordance with their respective statutory duties. The Rule and the Practice Direction are being revised to make them (it is to be hoped) more practical and “user friendly”. Practitioners should look out, in due course, for the amendments.

And then a suggested form of wording for orders (you will note that this is a LOT longer at present, and the President stresses that all of this should be prefaced by a short judgment as to why the expert is required, and at the minimum a clear preamble that sets out why the judicial decision has been made)

Coda

    1. A suggested form of order, depending on the facts of the individual case, could be in the following terms: –

 

a) The proposed assessment and report by X (as set out in paragraph 2 of this order) are vital to the resolution of this case.

b) This case is exceptional on its facts.

c) The costs to be incurred in the preparation of such reports are wholly necessary, reasonable and proportionate disbursement on the funding certificates of the publicly funded parties in this case.

d) The court considers X’s hourly rate of £y and the estimated costs of the assessment report to be reasonable in the context of (his) qualifications, experience and expertise.

e) The field in which X practises, and the particular expertise which (he) brings to bear on cases involving (subject) are highly specialised. There is no realistic prospect of finding an alternative expert with the necessary expertise at lower fee.

f) (The court considers that any further delay in order to give the LSC the (further) opportunity to consider an application for prior authority to incur the costs of the proposed amendment or report would be wholly outside the child(ren’s) timescale(s).

  1. Even such an order (which will need, of course, to be adapted to the facts of the individual case) should be buttressed by reasons as set out in the guidance which I have attempted to give.

There’s a very interesting addendum to the judgment, where the LSC submitted some data to the Court. Here are the figures on applications for prior authorities :-

Nov 2011  – 216

Dec 2011 – 492

Jan 2012 – 784

Feb 2012 – 1140

Mar 2012 – 1840

Apr 2012 1855

I wonder why the numbers spiked so – might it be because the LSC started rejecting claims left right and centre, leaving solicitors holding the baby and being out of pocket and thus deciding never to get burned like that again?

Laughably, they also claim to be processing prior authority applications in between 3 and 8 days.  (Perhaps, if their definition of a Day is the time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun)

So, where are we?  I suspect, still waiting for the judicial review.  The white flag has been waved by the Courts as to whether they or the LSC are in charge of assessments, so what Justice Wall has done here is set out a clear framework in advance for prior authority applications to be accompanied  by chapter and verse on why the Court has decided that the assessment is necessary and the costs appropriate. That paves the way, should the LSC act capriciously (as if they ever would, quell my scepticism) for a judicial review.

If you’re an Independent Social Worker, this case is really, really bad news, I’m afraid. The Courts are not going to do battle with the LSC in any care case as to the ludicrous £30 per hour cap that was pulled out of thin air. It will have to be a judicial review based on the policy being unreasonable and having been done without an Impact assessment.  (And I think the clock has chimed on the time-limit for such an application – unless the applicant (Nagalro, or BASW presumably) argues that it was unclear until this decision that the intention was to bind the courts, or that social workers doing risk assessments would not get the £63 per hour that the SI suggests)

Respect my prior authoriteh !

 

“I guess one person can make a difference… but most of the time, they probably shouldn’t”   – Marge Simpson

 

I would be very interested to know if this is a local problem, or more widespread, but I’ve had a spate over the last five months (getting steadily worse) of cases being delayed and my email being clogged full of problems about Prior Authority.  This tension seems to have arisen because the LSC appear to intepret a Court order that says “The costs of this expert be shared in equal one quarter shares between the Local Authority and the public funding certificates of the mother, father and Child” to actually mean “The costs be split one quarter to the LA, who have to pay up and shut up, whatever we feel like we want to pay, and the rest out of the solicitors profit costs – providing of course that we think the assessment should actually happen at all”  and “the report to be filed and served by 1st April 2012″  to mean “The expert report will be filed at some indeterminate time in the future, after we’ve processed prior authorities, granted one of them, rejected one of them, and refused one, then reconsidered on appeal”

 

 

If that’s sounding familiar, I have a suggested order, and a generic skeleton below, which I have been using in a concerted effort to educate the LSC that in Court proceedings, it is the Court who decide what reports take place, and who pays for them. Hint – the clue is in the wording of the initial order, and the omission of the words “Whatever we feel like we want to pay and the rest out of the solicitors profit costs”

 

Please let me know of problems or solutions in your area. It will all be helpful should the LSC decide to challenge the Court’s jurisdiction on costs.

 

Order :-

The Court orders that the costs of the assessment be met in equal one quarter shares between the Local Authority and the public funding certificates of the mother, father and Child/ren, it being a reasonable and proportionate disbursement for the purposes of public funding, and the Court having determined that the report is necessary for the resolution of the case.  In the event that the Legal Services Commission, who adminster the public funding certificates and payments made, seek to vary or set aside this order, such application should be made on notice to the parties, no later than                (2 weeks time).  If no such application has been made by that date, this order shall stand. The publicly funded parties shall serve both the sealed order, and a typed version of this order (to avoid delay in waiting for the sealed order) upon the branch of the LSC dealing with their certificate, forthwith.

 

Skeleton

Case No: 

IN THE                                  COURT

 

IN THE MATTER OF

 

AND IN THE MATTER OF THE CHILDREN ACT 1989

 

B E T W E E N:

Applicant

-and-

 

1st Respondent

-and-

 

 

2nd Respondent

-and-

 

 

(by his/her/their Guardian)

3rd Respondent

 

_____________________________

Skeleton argument

Prepared by the Local Authority

______________________________

 

 

Brief background

 

 

Proceedings in relation to                                            were commenced on                          .  [Information re dates of birth of the children, who the parents are, where the children are living and under what orders]

 

The concerns in the case relate to                                           as set out in the threshold document [page reference].

 

 

 

 

On [date] , the Court made the following direction relating to the instruction of an expert:-

 

 

 

 

Certain of the publicly funded parties made an application to the Legal Services Commission (hereafter LSC) for “Prior Authority”  – that is, agreement in advance of receipt of the invoice from the expert that the LSC would honour that payment.

 

Obtaining “Prior Authority” from the LSC is not a required element of the solicitors firms contract with the LSC, but many firms, locally and nationally, take the cautious and not unreasonable view that they would wish to ensure that the LSC will pay any costs incurred, as if they do not, the firm themselves are left paying any shortfall, thus taking a financial loss on dealing with the case.

 

The Local Authority would emphasise that they have sympathy and understanding for the solicitors firms involved, who have to operate in a financial climate where making up the shortfall between what an expert charges and what the LSC pays towards that expert fees can mean a Mr Micawber-esque outcome :- “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

 

 

The “Prior Authority” mechanism, whereby the solicitors firms seek reassurance from the LSC that their allotted share of the expert fees will be recouped in full, in advance of the expert incurring any fees (by commencing the work which has been directed), is sadly not flexible, fluid or swift enough for such results to be known in good time for the expert to undertake the work and hit the deadlines imposed by the Court. In many cases, the process is taking a period of months, rather than weeks, leading to significant delays in the expert commencing the work, and hence the report being available when directed. This in turn, leads to delays in the Court being able to resolve decisions for children.

 

 

 

The Local Authority stance is that the Court have ordered, legitimately and lawfully, that an expert report be commissioned, and ordered, legitimately and lawfully that the costs of that report be apportioned in a certain way. If the LSC now resist that legitimate and lawful order, they should seek to apply to vary or discharge it.

 

It is suggested that to clarify this position in future, it should be made explicit on the face of the order that if the LSC seek to vary or discharge the order as to the apportionment of costs, they do so within 14 days of the order being made, and that the publicly funded parties shall file and serve the order (or a typed note thereof) upon the branch of the LSC dealing with their particular certificate.

 

This then avoids the need for any application for Prior Authority, as the Court will have ordered how the costs are to be paid, and the LSC will have their opportunity to challenge that within timescales which are more suitable for the child, and the administration of justice.

 

 

 

 

Notwithstanding the legitimate desire of the LSC to manage their budget and to drive down the costs of expert assessment, the Local Authority submit that where this causes delay for the child, the system has not worked properly.

 

 

 

The law

 

 

Section 38(6) of the Children Act 1989 gives the Court the power to order that assessments be conducted within care proceedings.

 

That this power extended to directing how the assessments were to be paid for derives from a number of authorities, notably

 

CALDERDALE METROPOLITAN BOROUGH COUNCIL V (1) S (2) LEGAL SERVICES COMMISSION (2004)

 

[2004] EWHC 2529 (Fam)

 

In which the High Court determined that the Court had jurisdiction to order that the costs of obtaining an assessment be divided in whatever way it saw fit, including making provision  (as in this case) that the Local Authority pay one quarter, and each of the three publicly funded parties pay their own one quarter share through their public funding certificate.

 

It will be noted that the LSC played an active role within that case.

 

The principles in Calderdale were revisited in

 

LAMBETH LBC v S (2005)

 

[2005] EWHC 776 (Fam)

Fam Div (Ryder J) 03/05/2005

 

Where the High Court determined that funding of section 38(6) assessments was not outside the remit of the LSC, and importantly that the Commissions own guidance on funding was not binding on the Court.

 

 

Some extracts from that judgment which are pertinent to the issue here (and given that it was made nearly seven years ago, prescient)  :-

 

Paragraph 43 : – “It is equally correct that the Community Legal Service Fund has fixed and limited resources but so do local authorities… the services they both provide are inextricably linked to the obligation on the Court to ensure within the Court’s process the exploration rather than the exclusion of expert assessment and opinion that might negate the State’s case for the permanent removal of a child from his parents

 

Paragraph 62 : –  “ There is already a healthy delegation of the Commission’s powers and duties to the parties legal advisors. That practice of delegation was very properly exercised on the facts of this case and as a matter of practice around the country great care is taken by publicly funded practitioners to abide by their duties. A paper review of a case by the Commission is in any event a poor substitute for the Court’s overall impression gained by its continuous case management”

 

Paragraph 63 “It is a matter for them (the LSC) to put in place guidance to deal with exceptional expense provided that any prior authority or notification systems do not cause delay”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Court do have the power, under Rule 25.4 (4) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 , set out below, to limit the amount of an experts fee and the expenses that may be recovered from any other party.  There is nothing within that power to circumscribe HOW the Court may limit the amount, and certainly nothing to indicate that they are bound by the LSC’s own internal policy or guidance.

 

Court’s power to restrict expert evidence

25.4.—(1) No party may call an expert or put in evidence an expert’s report without the court’s permission.

(2) When parties apply for permission they must identify—

(a) the field in which the expert evidence is required; and

(b) where practicable, the name of the proposed expert.

(3) If permission is granted it will be in relation only to the expert named or the field identified under paragraph(2).

(4) The court may limit the amount of a party’s expert’s fees and expenses that may be recovered from any other party

 

 

The Court must consider, in any application to vary or discharge the original order :-

 

Section 1 (1) of the Children Act 1989  “when a Court determines any question with respect to (a) the upbringing of the child; the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.

 

And section (1) (2) of the Children Act 1989 “in any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child”

 

The paramount consideration is the child’s welfare, and that delay is likely to be prejudicial to that welfare; rather than the financial aspects (important as they legitimately are to both the LSC and the firms involved)

 

 

It is submitted as a result of all that has preceded,  that :-

 

(a)    the Court has power to direct that an assessment take place (pace s38(6) of the Children Act 1989)

(b)   the Court has power to direct that the costs of the assessment be apportioned in such way as they see fit, including directing that the parties public funding certificates bear all or some of the costs  (pace Calderdale)

(c)    The LSC own internal policy on funding, and the limits they will pay in relation to experts is not binding on the Court (pace Lambeth)

(d)   The Court does have the power to set a cost limitation when instructing an expert, and also when considering any application to vary the original order.  (pace rule 25.4 (4) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010)

(e)    If the consequences of setting a cost limit and varying the existing order, mean that a fresh assessment be commissioned, or significant delay incurred, the Court cannot make that variation without considering the provisions of section 1 (1) and section 1 (2) of the Children Act 1989

 

And that

 

(f)    the interests of the child would be better served by the report which is so close to completion being completed and filed and served, as originally intended, and for the existing order to remain in place, with no cost cap being added.

 

 

The Local Authority would accept that in some cases where the LSC actively seek to become involved and make representations, that the balance might well fall another way, and that the LSC’s perfectly legitimate motivation in controlling costs and curbing what had been excesses might justify the Court setting a cap pursuant to rule 25.4 (4) of the FPR.

 

In this case, however, it is not. Decisions here need to be made about this child/these children, and what the appropriate arrangements for his/her/their family life should be.

 

In general, the Local Authority would suggest that where Prior Authority is  refused, then there is a need for the case to be urgently restored for directions, to consider whether the original direction needs to be varied, and the impact on the timetable generally.  The Local Authority would remark that a great deal of their time is currently spent on wrangling with decisions in relation to Prior Authority and whether expert assessments which have been directed by the Court can take place, and many of these disputes have led to delay for the children concerned.

 

 

 

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