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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)

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.
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