This is a report of a short judgment from Her Honour Judge Hallam sitting in Middlesbrough, building on a decision from District Judge Reed in the same Court. Huge credit to both of them for calling out the Legal Aid Agency on this dreadful state of affairs (the LAA in turn are just doing what they are told to do by our Lord Chancellor)
Re H 2014
This was a private law case, between a mother and a father. The father had legal aid, because the child was known to social services and they were supporting him. The mother did not. [One could make far more sense of it if it were the other way around – the father had a lesser need of representation because his case was being supported]
At a hearing in May 2014, the Court picked up that this mother was not someone who was going to be able to represent herself – there was an assessment of her cognitive abilities that assisted with that
She is not sufficiently disadvantaged to say that she does not have capacity to litigate. She has capacity to litigate but in my judgment that is only with the assistance of a solicitor. She has difficulties in hearing, in speech and intellectual difficulties. She is unable to read or write. They are not fanciful difficulties. In previous public law proceedings there has been a report from Dr Cooper, who is a psychologist, informing the court of the mother’s cognitive difficulties and learning difficulties. Having seen the mother in court, I am satisfied that she would not have been able to represent herself in a case as complex as this and therefore, in my judgment, she was, to all intents and purposes, prevented from having access to this court
At that hearing, D J Reed gave these directions
The matter came before District Judge Reed in May of this year, on 19th May. As I say, it was apparent at that stage that the mother opposed the father’s application. Furthermore, it was apparent that the local authority supported the father in his application. There was a recommendation about contact. When the matter came before District Judge Reed, the local authority, Middlesbrough Council, were made a party to the proceedings. At that stage the mother was self-representing and the judge was clearly concerned about that and there is a lengthy preamble to the order that he made in May. That preamble recorded that the attendance of GHu in court to support the mother was not appropriate, given the issue in the case. He recorded that:
‘In the absence of legal aid to secure representation of the mother, it is inevitable that her article 6 and her article 8 ECHR rights will be at risk of being violated, given her evident speech, hearing and learning difficulties, if the case proceeds without further representation.’
That could not have been a clearer indication of the judge’s opinion and consideration of this matter and therefore he also said that:
‘On its facts and having regard to the surrounding circumstances and, in particular, the recent party status of Middlesbrough local authority, the criteria for assessing an exceptional grant of legal aid are likely to be made out.’
He went further and said that the local authority involvement in the current proceedings is based largely on public law and child protection issues relating to the respondent mother’s fifth child, subject to public law proceedings which concluded in 2014, resulting in both care and placement orders. He said there is considerable similarity and overlap in the issues which present in both sets of proceedings. That part of the preamble continues with:
‘Furthermore, in the circumstances of this particular case and those of the respondent mother, it would be unrealistic and potentially unjust to expect the respondent mother to be a self-representing person.’
Therefore he adjourned what was to be a final hearing on that occasion in order for a further application to be made to the legal aid authorities.
You might think that you could not have a clearer indication (particularly in light of Q v Q) that the State would be breaching mother’s article 6 and article 8 human rights by not allowing her to have free legal representation.
You will, however, not be surprised to know that the Legal Aid Agency did not grant her exceptional funding under s10 LASPO. Of course they didn’t. As part of that decision, they considered that there was no risk of article 6 or article 8 breach. Of course they are in a far better position to assess that than the Judge who is seized of all the facts and knows the stakes. Of course they are.
The second matter that I am told that Mr Keegan relied upon was that there would be no breach of Convention rights. I find that statement astounding. A district judge had already found, having seen the mother, that undoubtedly her article 6 and article 8 rights would be breached. When I pause to consider the article 6 first of all, which is to ensure that people have fair trials in the courts of this country, and in order to do that should have equality of arms, I cannot see how anyone can come to the conclusion that this mother’s article 6 rights were not in jeopardy. I repeat again the father has the support of a legal representative. The local authority, who are advancing a case contrary to that of the mother’s, has legal representation. Without legal aid, therefore, the mother, on her own, would be facing two advocates pursuing a case against her. On any basis that cannot be equality of arms. She is the party with the least ability, the greatest vulnerability and she should have had the benefit of legal representation. She is faced with the father, who has the greater ability and the support of social services; as I say, both being legally represented. In effect, this vulnerable mother is faced with two advocates running a case against her and she does not even have one. I cannot think of a clearer breach of article 6. Article 8 – this matter is clearly about family life and the mother’s right to family life, whether the children should be in her care or not and what contact she should have. Again, I cannot see any conclusion other than that her article 8 rights were engaged, as the district judge said, in my view, properly, in the court below.
Fortunately for this woman, someone stepped in to represent her pro bono, but that doesn’t get away from the fact that we simply don’t have a system where s10 LASPO is the safety net that the MOJ claimed that it was when they were getting this awful legislation through Parliament.
If a Judge says that a person’s article 6 rights will be breached without representation, that’s a really really really good indicator that they would be. Judges don’t say these things for fun.
Ithas been fortunate that she has had the assistance of someone today because this matter has reached agreement. However, it is not right that legal professionals should have to attend a hearing, as complex as this one, without remuneration. The mother still has concerns about the father’s care for the children and many of those concerns are shared by the local authority, so she has not been running a fanciful case. The matter has resolved; it has resolved with an order and a very detailed working agreement. Again, I cannot see how this mother could have entered into that working agreement which has resolved this case without the assistance of Mr Nixon here to help her understand it, consider whether it was right and ultimately agree to it. Therefore, I have given this judgment because I am satisfied that this mother should have had legal aid and should have been represented. Mothers in her situation should have proper and full access to the court with the assistance of legal advice. As I have said, I am going to order a transcript of this judgment, both for the Legal Aid Board and also because I feel that it should be shown to the President of the Family Division to show what is happening in these courts. I am told that since April 2013 there have been only eight or nine cases where exceptional legal aid has been granted. I do not know if that is correct, but if legal aid is being refused to people such as this mother I am satisfied that injustices will occur. Had this matter proceeded without the assistance of Mr Nixon to a fully contested hearing, this court would have been put in an impossible situation. Having said that, I approve the order. I am grateful to everybody for the time they have spent and I am also, as I keep saying, very grateful to Mr Nixon for having attended today.