Many other people will be writing about this case, but I’ll just give the bit for the family lawyers and Court of Protection lawyers (since it touches on capacity cases). Really important for the battles that have been fought since LASPO to say that it is being interpreted by the Legal Aid Agency in a way that, as Mostyn J put it
“sacrifices individual justice on the altar of public debt”
[which is approvingly cited in the case. Hell yeah]
This is of course, the case about whether the Legal Aid Agency were properly using their discretion on granting public funding for cases where to represent yourself would put you in a position where your human rights would be breached, i.e section 10 LASPO. The LAA lost. They intend to appeal.
The really important bit for family law cases is paragraph 40
It is difficult to imagine a family case, particularly when there are contested issues about children, in which there would not be an interference with the Article 8 rights of either parent or the children themselves. Thus unless the party seeking legal aid could albeit unrepresented present his or her case effectively and without obvious unfairness, a grant of legal aid would be required. That does not mean that every case will require it: some may be sufficiently simple for the unrepresented party to deal with. Obviously if there is a lack of capacity even such cases may require legal aid. That issue I will have to consider in further detail later. But I am bound to say that I believe that only in rare cases, subject to means and merits if properly applied, should legal aid be denied in such cases. As it is now applied, the scheme is clearly wholly deficient in that it does not enable the family courts to be satisfied that they can do justice and give a fair hearing to an unrepresented party. While the problem may perhaps be less acute in other civil cases, I have no doubt that the difficulties I have referred to in family cases apply.
You can’t really have a much clearer message than that to say that the low rate of s10 LASPO public funding applications being granted, and the tests and guidance being applied by the LAA are wrong. Scandalously wrong.
Paragraph 80 also good – that the process of making an application is made unnecessarily difficult, and this, combined with the poor success rate has had the obvious effect of discouraging such applications from being made.
The main problem lies in the forms which are prescribed. They are far too complicated and are not at all helpful to lay persons. Providers have difficulties with them and the small level of grant has unquestionably, on the evidence which has not shown to be erroneous, led to the unwillingness of providers to take on clients who need to apply for ECF. The scheme is not properly providing the safety net which s.10 is supposed to provide. It is to be noted that it was anticipated that some 5,000 to 7,000 applications would be made in a year. The actual rate was a fraction of that. The defendants say that the figures they relied on were only estimates for planning purposes. In a letter of 20 August 2013 the MoJ stated that the figures were based on the number of grants estimated in the LASPO consultation exercise, namely 3,700. It is significant that the scheme has not produced anything like that number of grants, let alone applications. Furthermore, as the OS has indicated and a number of applications dealt with in the statements confirm, the hurdle erected for those who lack capacity is far too high. Those who are unable to pay for legal assistance are suffering in a way that Parliament cannot have intended.
And final flurry of killer blows
- As will become apparent, I think that there must be changes to the scheme. The ECF application forms are far too complex for applicants in person. Separate forms should be provided. Indeed, overall the test set out in R(G) can be set out in the form and applicants or providers can then be required to give full details of the need for legal assistance by producing all existing material relevant to the application. As I indicated, what is put on the website can surely be put on a form. Consideration must be given to provision of Legal Help to enable providers to do work to see whether a client has a case which should be granted legal assistance because it qualifies within s.10 of the Act. No doubt the LAA will be entitled to decide whether any such application is reasonable since a provider must satisfy himself that there is a possible need for legal assistance on the basis of preliminary information given by the client and any relevant documents provided. Legal Help does not require a prospect of success test.
- The rigidity of the merits test and the manner in which it is applied are in my judgment wholly unsatisfactory. They are not reasonable.
- As will be clear, I am satisfied that the scheme as operated is not providing the safety net promised by Ministers and is not in accordance with s.10 in that it does not ensure that applicants’ human rights are not breached or are not likely to be breached. There is a further defect in the failure to have any right of appeal to a judicial body where an individual who lacks capacity will otherwise be unable to access a court or tribunal.
I don’t know about you, but I find something shameful about a Ministry of Justice being condemned by a Court for their part in devising a scheme that deprived individuals of justice in order to assauge public debt. And similarly something shameful that a body whose job it is to ensure that people have access to legal representation and advice going out of their way to prevent them getting it.
But then, these are bodies who in their response to the criticisms laid against them by the Justice Select Committee of Parliament with comments like “The Court did not rule that our policy was wholly unlawful” as though that was something that a Ministry of Justice should actually boast about.
Which reminds me rather of Steve Coogan’s pool attendant from the Day Today