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Human Rights claims and statutory charge – an answer? Sort of

In the words of Erik B and Rakim

 

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’ta left you, without a strong rhyme to step to

 

But now, to paraphrase the one-hit wonder gangster rapper from Leicester,  “Return of the Pack – oh my god, Return of the Pack, here I am, Return of the Pack, once again, Return of the Pack, Pump up the world”

 

Which is a more heavy rap-related intro than intended, but basically, now I’m back, to show you…

 

P v a Local Authority 2016

High Court y’all.  Keehan J in da House.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/2779.html

This one is actually a Keehan J shout out to the old skool, if by old skool, you mean (and I do),  the return of a case from March 2016

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2016/03/11/child-in-care-wanting-parents-to-have-no-information-or-involvement/

 

That was the case where the young person did not want his adoptive parents to know anything about the process of gender reassignment, and the LA went to Court to ascertain whether that was in conflict with their duties under the Children Act 1989 to consult with parents when they are looking after a child.

Unfortunately, this happened

 

Background

 

  • In September 2015 P moved to a local authority unit for semi-independent living. Although there were concerns about his mental well being and general welfare, P settled in to this accommodation. He was and is a vulnerable young person with a history of repeated episodes of self harm, taking overdoses and extremely poor mental health.
  • On 11 January 2016 an employee of the local authority disclosed personal information about P, including his forename and transgender status, to third parties who are friends of P’s adoptive parents. P was originally told that the address of the unit where he was living had also been disclosed: this later appears not to have been the case.
  • The impact of this wrongful disclosure on P was immediate and dramatic. He felt unsafe at the unit and left. He first stayed with his girlfriend and then at a number of residential units provided by the local authority. P’s mental health was very severely compromised: he made a number of suicide attempts and there were several episodes of self harm.
  • In more recent months P’s mental health has stabilised. I was very pleased that he was well enough to attend the last court hearing on 26 August 2016.
  • Although the local authority promptly told P of the disclosure of his personal information, I regret that it was slow in (a) giving P a full account of what had happened and (b) giving P a full and unreserved apology. In February the then Director of Children and Family Services wrote a letter of apology to P and offered to meet with him to answer any questions he may have had. P did not take up the offer of a meeting.
  • The member of staff who made the wrongful disclosure was suspended by the local authority and a formal investigation was undertaken pursuant to the council’s disciplinary policy. I do not know the outcome of that process.
  • Regrettably, and notwithstanding that P is a ward of this court, the local authority did not bring this breach of P’s privacy to the attention of this court. The matter was raised with the court by P’s lawyers.
  • The local authority, very sensible and rightly, decided to concede it had, by the inexcusable actions of one of its employees, breached P’s Article 8 rights to respect for his family and private life. They agreed to pay P damages in the sum of £4750. I am satisfied that in light of the very considerable distress suffered by P and the immediate adverse impact on his mental health, this appears to be an appropriate level of damages to be awarded to P.

 

That all seems straightforward. The LA messed up, and they agreed a sum of compensation to pay to P and P was content with that sum, and the Judge felt it was the right amount.

So why is this even a thing?

Well, it is because the Legal Aid Agency (having by the way refused to give P funding to make a claim for damages) wanted to take that £4750 and use it to repay the legal aid that P had had in the original wardship proceedings. This is called the Statutory Charge, and it comes up most often in divorce cases about money. The point there is that if you get legal aid (or ‘free’ legal representation paid by the taxpayer and you win money out of the case, you have to pay the legal aid back out of that money. ) That makes sense with divorce. It doesn’t make a lot of sense here.

It was P’s legal rights that were breached, and the £4,750 is compensation for that breach. Obviously he should get the money.

 

But no, the statutory charge bites on the compensation and P would get nothing.

That’s because of our dear old friend LASPO, the Statute that keeps on giving (if by giving you mean stealing pennies from the eyes of corpses)

 

  • Its current statutory basis is set out in s. 25 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’) which provides:

 

“Charges on property in connection with civil legal services

(1) Where civil legal services are made available to an individual under this Part, the amounts described in subsection (2) are to constitute a first charge on—

(a) any property recovered or preserved by the individual in proceedings, or in any compromise or settlement of a dispute, in connection with which the services were provided (whether the property is recovered or preserved for the individual or another person), and

(b) any costs payable to the individual by another person in connection with such proceedings or such a dispute.

 

And the killer words her are “in connection with”  – basically the Legal Aid Agency position is that the statutory charge bites (and thus they can take the compensation and take all of the legal aid costs spent on other stuff and P just gets anything left over) if there’s a connection between the cases at all.

There’s one exception in the LASPO Act (none of which apply to compensation from Human Rights claims) and the Lord Chancellor has power to exempt the statutory charge in certain cases

 

 

  • The Lord Chancellor has authority to waive the statutory charge, in whole or in part, where she considers it equitable to do so and two conditions are met.

 

Those conditions are:

(a) the Director was satisfied, in determining that a legally aided party qualified for legal representation, that the proceedings had a significant wider public interest; and

(b) the Director in making the determination took into account that there were other claimants or potential claimants who might benefit from the proceedings:

see regulation 9 of the CLA(SC)R 2013.

 

  • The phrase ‘significant wider public interest’ is defined as being a case where the Director of the LAA is satisfied that the case is an appropriate case to realise real benefits to the public at large, other than those which normally flow from cases of the type in question, and benefits to an identifiable class of individuals, other than the individual to whom civil legal services may be provided or members of that individual’s family: see regulation 6 of the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulation 2013 (the ‘LA(MC)R 2013’).
  • The LAA asserts that the two conditions set out in regulation 9 of the CLA(SC)R 2013 must be satisfied at the time the application for funding is made and the Director makes the determination that the application qualifies for funding. The purpose of the waiver is to allow legal aid to be granted for a single test case without disadvantaging the applicant should he or she fail to secure damages and/or all of their costs.

 

 

The Lord Chancellor and the Legal Aid Agency were both represented in these proceedings and were clear that Reg 9 had not been sought at the time the application for funding was made (of course it hadn’t, because the breach hadn’t happened at that point)  and so it couldn’t now be applied.

Their very reasonable solution was that P would get his damages, provided that his solicitors, silk and junior counsel agreed to waive all of their fees from the wardship case (i.e having represented P in a very complex and legally difficult case and got everything that he wanted and advanced the law in a way that will help others in similar circumstances, they should not get paid for any of it)

 

 

  • In taking a broad and pragmatic approach leading counsel for the local authority submits that the adverse consequence of the statutory charge, that P will receive not a penny in damages, is unfair and makes no sense. I have a very considerable degree of sympathy with those sentiments.
  • In this context I deprecate the stance taken by the LAA that the issue of P receiving any of the awarded HRA damages would be alleviated if his leading counsel, junior counsel and solicitor simply waived their professional fees for acting in this matter.

 

 

The Judge mooted the idea that if there was a break between the two cases (this is my solution so I’m interested in it)  i.e

  1. The solicitors and counsel deal with the wardship or care proceedings on legal aid

2. Separately and without charging for it, they write to the LA about human rights breach and ask for compensation

3. LA settles the HRA claim (and possibly pays the costs of step 2 into the bargain)

 

Then why is the money recovered as a result of step 2 ‘in connection with’ step 1?  And why should the LAA get their money back from step 1 if step 2 is nothing to do with it, and no legal aid money was spent in getting step 2 achieved?

I think this is a damn good point (immodestly, because I’ve been saying it for ages). The LAA unsurprisingly disagree

 

 

  • The principal supplementary submissions of the LAA may be distilled into the following 10 points:

 

(a) it was common ground between the parties at the hearing on 26 August 2016 that any damages recovered in relation to the breach of P’s Article 8 rights (the ‘HRA claim’) would be damages recovered in the wardship proceedings;(b) the creation of new proceedings avowedly for the purpose of avoiding the statutory charge would not be an appropriate use of the court’s powers. It would be wrong to seek to bring about the disapplication of the statutory charge by changing the previously contemplated approach to the scope of this judgment or disapplying certain rules of civil procedure.

(c) The issues raised by the court about the application of the statutory charge cannot be resolved in a factual vacuum.

(d) Even if P’s damages were awarded in freestanding proceedings which were not funded by the LAA, the statutory charge would still apply to those damages if they were recovered in “proceedings in connection with which the [civil legal] services were provided.” The language of ‘in connection with’ is obviously very wide. I was referred to the case of Cassidy v. Stephenson [2009] EWHC 1562 (QB) where Holman J. held that money recovered from the settlement of professional negligence proceedings brought as a result of a failed clinical negligence (which was funded) was not property recovered in a dispute “in connection with which” the legal services for the clinical negligence claims were provided.

(e) The propositions set out in paragraphs 7 to 10 of the email of 20 October 2016 are correct, save that the LAA is not privy to the full background to this case (eg the local authority’s response to P’s letter before action).

(f) The HRA claim cannot be said to be ‘wholly unconnected’ to the subject matter of the wardship proceedings. The LAA asserts that:

“As the LAA understands the position, the Court considered P’s circumstances and the extent to which information about him and his whereabouts should be disclosed in the inherent jurisdiction proceedings. The HRA Claim arose, as the LAA understands it, as a result of conduct by the LCC that was not consistent with the way in which that issue was resolved, with the Court’s assistance, in these proceedings. It was therefore reliant on matters determined in RA’s favour in the wardship proceedings, for which funding for civil legal services was provided.

Civil legal services were provided for the wardship proceedings, in which RA was made a ward of the Court, and restrictions were imposed on disclosure of information in relation to RA. It was the fact that LCC acted contrary to the resolved position that has given rise to the HRA Claim. The LAA funded the wardship proceedings, including for a declaration that there had been a breach of the injunction imposed by the Court. “

(g) It would be artificial to say than any recovery of damages was not made in the wardship proceedings.

(h) Even if the award of damages was made or approved outwith the wardship proceedings, the damages were still recovered in proceedings in connection with which “legal services were provided” (i.e. the wardship proceedings). The LAA relies on the assertion by P’s counsel that the authorities state that HRA claims should be brought within wardship proceedings viz. Re L(Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] 2 FLR 160.

(i) The answer to the question posed in paragraph 15 of the email of 20 October 2016 is “yes” there are reasons why the court should not permit the issue of a freestanding HRA claim. Such a device would be inappropriate and would not result in the disapplication of the statutory charge because, as asserted above, the damages would be recovered in (unfunded) proceedings which were “in connection with” the (funded) wardship proceedings.

 

 

The Judge decided otherwise and ruled that in this case steps 1 and 2 were not ‘connected with’ each other and the statutory charge did not arise on the compensation payable to P. Hooray!

 

 

 

  • It is appropriate for me to deal with each of those points in turn. First, the court is neither bound nor fettered in its determination of the legal issues or the factual matrix of a case by the submission of counsel. In any event counsel were afforded the opportunity to agree or disagree with the alternative analysis proposed by the court and to make submissions. P and the local authority have decided to agree with my propositions and questions. The LAA have had a full opportunity to respond and I can discern no procedural or substantive unfairness in the course I have adopted.
  • Second, to characterise the alternative analysis the court has suggested is ‘avowedly for the purpose of avoiding the statutory charge’ is quite wrong. Rather my objective is to secure, if at all possible, by any legitimate and lawful route P’s receipt of the damages he maybe awarded for the breach of his Article 8 Rights by an organ of the state.
  • Third the factual matrix of this case should be well known to all parties including the LAA. The same is comprehensively set out in the parties’ written submissions and in a detailed chronology prepared on behalf of P. I do not accept the court is considering the legal issues in this case in a factual vacuum.
  • Fourth, with reference to paragraph 64(d) above, I accept the phrase “in connection with which the [civil legal] services were provided” can be given a very wide interpretation. I was not referred to any authority to support a submission that I must give it a very wide interpretation.
  • Fifth, with reference to paragraph 64(e) above, I do not understand the submission that the “LAA is not privy to the full background to this case.” For the purposes of this judgment I have not taken account of nor have I been furnished with material not available to all counsel, save perhaps for one matter which I refer to in the next paragraph.
  • Sixth, with reference to paragraphs 64(f) and (g) above, the LAA appears to have proceeded and proceeds on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of the order I made in August 2015: see paragraph 46 above. I did not make an injunction or other order prohibiting the local authority from disclosing personal or private details about P to other persons, save against the local authority disclosing information to P’s adoptive parents: see paragraph 8 above. I made a declaratory order that the local authority was relieved of its statutory duty to give information about P to or to consult with P’s adoptive parents about P or his welfare. The LAA has proceeded and proceeds on the following assumptions:

 

(a) that I made an injunctive order against the local authority;(b) that the employee of the local authority breached the terms of that injunction;

(c) and that P’s claim against the local authority was based on a breach of that injunction.

None of the foregoing assumptions are factually correct. The LAA’s mistake does explain the funding decision of 8 February 2016, set out at paragraph 38 above, to permit P to bring a claim for a declaration for breach of an injunction.

 

  • P’s claim is and was always based upon his Art. 8 Convention right to respect for his private and family life. The claim had nothing to do with the declaratory relief granted to P in the wardship proceedings. This court was not notified of that alleged breach (now admitted) by an employee of the local authority which it should have been because P is a ward of this court and because of the adverse consequences of the wrongful disclosure on P. Furthermore the wrongful disclosure, insofar as it is relevant, was made to third parties and not to P’s adoptive parents. The local authority asserts that the third parties did not, in fact, pass on the disclosed information to P’s adoptive parents.
  • Seventh, with reference to paragraphs 64(h) and (i) above, in light of the correct factual matrix set out above I am not satisfied that the (unfunded) HRA claim in which damages are sought could be said to be “recovered in proceedings in connection with which legal services were provided” (i.e. the funded wardship proceedings). I go further, I am wholly satisfied that the damages resulting from the HRA claim are not “recovered in proceedings in connection with which legal services were provided”. There is no legal or factual connection between the wardship proceedings and P’s HRA claim.
  • The mere fact that P’s counsel in submission referred to the case of Re L(Care Proceedings: Human Rights Claims) [2003] 2 FLR 160 which advises that HRA claims may or should be made in existing proceedings, does not require this court to conclude that P must or may only make a HRA claim in ongoing wardship proceedings. No claim form was issued. The HRA claim and the quantum of damages were settled before a claim was issued. As referred to in paragraphs 58 and 59 above, rr. 21.10 and 8 of the CPR set out the appropriate procedure when a settlement is reached concerning a child or young person prior to the issue of proceedings.
  • I can discern no legal impediment or other reason why I should not permit P by his solicitor to issue a claim form as required by r. 8.2 of the CPR and upon that basis, in due course, proceed to approve the agreed award of damages to P in respect of his HRA claim in those proceedings. The approval of damages can be submitted by email and be dealt on the papers without the need for a hearing. I am confident that the local authority would agree to pay the costs of that process incurred by P’s legal team.

 

Conclusions

 

  • I am bound to find that the Lord Chancellor, by the director of the LAA, has no discretion or power to waive the statutory charge, if applicable, in this case. The preconditions set out in regulation 9 of the CLA(SC)R 2013 must be satisfied at the time the determination of funding is made and a decision to waive the statutory charge must be made at the same time. That did not happen in this case and thus the preconditions are not satisfied.
  • I do not understand why the CLA(SC)R 2013 regulations placed that limitation on the time when a decision whether to waive the statutory charge must be made. I am not aware of any public interest or policy reasons for the same. It is regrettable that the discretion to waive the statutory charge is so fettered.
  • The manner in which the LAA has made determinations on public funding in these proceedings is extremely unfortunate. In some aspects the decisions are plainly wrong and/or unreasonable and in others the reasoning of the LAA is difficult to understand, if not incomprehensible.
  • In my view it would be extremely regrettable if P were to be denied the benefit of the damages awarded to him as a result of the considerable emotional distress and harm to his mental well being he has suffered as a result of the wrongful conduct of an organ of the state.
  • In light of the fact, however, that the LAA refused to fund a HRA claim for damages it appears me that the damages to be awarded to P under the Part 8 procedure were recovered in a claim that did not have the benefit of a public funding certificate. Further I am wholly satisfied that any damages awarded to P in Part 8 proceedings were not recovered “in proceedings in connection with which [civil legal] services were provided.” Accordingly, however erroneous or muddled the LAA’s decision making was on this issue, in my view, for the reasons I have given above the statutory charge is not and cannot be applicable to P’s award of damages.

 

 

Is this the end of it? Not really. Whilst the Judge here paints a route-map for others to follow, there are two major differences from other HRA cases notably the s20 damages cases.

 

  1. The HRA breach happened AFTER the Court hearing and not really in connection with the Court hearing at all. P’s rights would have been breached by what the rogue member of staff did, whether or not there had been a Court hearing. (The Court hearing made it sharper and more vivid and allowed P to easily tap into legal advice from his legal team whom he already knew, but the breach was a breach regardless. It was  a breach of his article 8 rights, NOT as the LAA mistakenly thought a breach of a Court injunction)
  2. The LAA had been asked to fund a damages claim and had refused. That is a material factor in the Judge being able to rule that there was no connection between the two cases.

 

(On the plus side for children and parents, this case probably makes it more likely that the LAA will STOP refusing to fund such damages cases, since if they do, they leave the door open to not being able to recover their original costs out of any winnings, but that in turn means that they will argue that this case doesn’t have broader application)

 

I suspect this is an issue that only the Court of Appeal or Parliament can resolve. It simply can’t be right that where a child or parent has their human rights breached by the State and compensation is paid that they will not get a penny of it. Equally it can’t be right that where the HRA claim is accepted and settled swiftly, that the LA get hit with costs of care proceedings which would be massively more than the legal costs of dealing with the HRA claim itself (and that is a collision course with Supreme Court decisions in Re S and Re T about where costs orders can be made in care proceedings)

Not for the first or last time, the answer is that LASPO is badly drafted and poorly constructed and unfair to real people, and it needs to be reworked.

 

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About suesspiciousminds

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

5 responses

  1. I am troubled by two points in this:
    (1) No one – neither Keehan J nor Mostyn J in the case he cites – seem to have looked at an old House of Lords case of Hanlon v Law Society [1981] AC. Sometimes old cases, like old jokes, are the best…
    (2) Watkinson v Legal Aid Board [1991] 2 FLR 26 CA says a fresh certficate in the same proceedings will not attract the charge.
    Neither of these cases seem to have been considered by Mostyn or Keehan JJ. If there is to be an appeal can this be drawn to the CA’s attention; or to that of LAA to see if they have second thoughts?

    • Interesting. Will they stand up given that the statute itself post-dates them considerably? I firmly think that the HRA costs should be dealt with as a wholly separate creature, and costs orders made if the LA don’t settle at an early opportunity, so I would like the cases to stand up.

      • Just seen this. The statute is in essentially the same terms as earlier legal aid st charge provision; and Solrs Act 1974 s 73. The earlier legal aid legislation applies only for the proceedings for which the certificate was granted (Hanlon).

  2. ashamedtobebritish

    Great judgement – it’s always great to see common sense prevail regardless of subject matter, I like this because it feels that the powerful force tried to pull a proverbial ‘wrong’un’ on someone they thought would just accept their lot, they didn’t get away with it, therefore might (emphasis on ‘might’) think twice of abuse of power in future.
    It wasn’t a multi million pound law suit – jeez, regardless, the amount isn’t the issue so much as the principle

    Let the wrist slapping begin

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