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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.

 

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About suesspiciousminds

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

4 responses

  1. In my opinion, the LAA has a point to demand from judges to do their own research and homework and not to rely on experts as an insurance for their decision making. I am highly aware that there is ongoing power struggle between the LAA and the court system, but this struggle also addresses a culture within the system that calls upon experts to hammer out evidence where no evidence exists. Many of those “hammers to hire” turned out to be somewhat “non expert” but had the power to make devastating impacts on the lives of too many families.

    PS. I am not making this point for Prof Lau, who is an expert in Sharia Law (as stated on his profile)… yet perhaps there is an issue here that isn’t quite clear in the case scenario. Why is a Western expert in Sharia law required? Why not just call a local Iman?

    • It was to establish whether there was anything within the Indian law that could have been done to give the English Court and the father confidence that the children would be returned from India after the holiday. It is purely a jurisidictional and technical question. There wasn’t intended to be any religious component, or any consideration of the children’s welfare in India, just whether orders could be obtained in India that could secure the children’s return to the UK (it not being a Hague convention country), either BEFORE mother went on the holiday, or afterwards if she failed to return them. That’s not something that a lawyer from the UK could hope to ascertain (certainly not at a cost of £2,100)

  2. Child Law Practitioner

    We have all been here before.

    We have all experienced incredibly delays in proceedings as a result of the smoking monkeys with typewriters who know better than senior members of the judiciary and somehow have the power to over-rule them.

    It is a frighteningly inpenetrable process which often results in the court receiving a watered down version of the assessment it has deemed ‘necessary’ to resolve the proceedings.

    Lo and behold, the costs to the public purse of addition litigation and court time far, far outweigh the costs of obtaining the expert report. Unless the legally aided barristers and solicitors were working pro bono and the judge was sitting in his spare time. Another fine example of the lack of joined up thinking which bedevils public bodies.

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