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if legal aid is being refused to people such as this mother I am satisfied that injustices will occur

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

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B127.html

 

 

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.

 

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Q v Q – an impasse

 

You may not be aware (it depends if you spend too much time online), that on the internet QQ in effect means stop whining, or crying about something (the Q’s looking like a pair of eyes with tears coming out of them)   – if you say that someone is QQ-ing, it means that they are whining like a child about something.    [ it comes up a lot]

 

In Q v Q 2014, the President tackles what’s been a long-standing problem in family law proceedings, particularly family law. And brings tears to the eyes of the Legal Aid Agency, Her Majesty’s Court Service and our beloved minister Chris Grayling. QQ indeed.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/7.html

 

For many years now, the Legal Aid Agency, under its various guises, has had a policy that they will withdraw public funding from someone who has legal aid (free legal representation) if there is an independent report which is heavily against them. Back when I was doing private law, this quite often used to be the CAFCASS report, and you’d end up in a position where your client’s legal aid would be pulled two days before a final hearing because the CAFCASS report was very damning.

 

Of course, the report is at that point untested evidence – for the Legal Aid Agency to presume that just because on paper the CAFCASS officer is against your client, there would be no prospect of getting them to change their mind or getting the Court to disagree with their conclusions is presumptuous in the extreme. If all the Court did was agree with what the CAFCASS report said on paper, then we wouldn’t need Judges at all, and CAFCASS could be the investigators and arbiters of final outcomes.   [Indeed, on a few such cases I recommended my client for free, and got a favourable decision for them]

 

That’s not a new thing, but in this case, the father was publicly funded and an expert was instructed (it was his expert) and the expert was heavily against him. His funding was pulled.

 

The father was therefore appearing in person, and requiring an interpreter. He wanted to be represented and he wanted to challenge the expert report. The mother, who was represented, invited the Court to dismiss his application and make a section 91(14) order prohibiting him from making further applications without leave of the Court.

 

The Court were unhappy about the impact of proceeding without representation for the father on his article 6 and article 8 rights, and mooted a series of possible solutions, before adjourning the case and inviting the Legal Aid Agency and Ministry to intervene to discuss those possible solutions.

 

 

In the circumstances, what I propose to do is this: I propose to adjourn this matter for, I emphasise, a short time, inviting the Ministry of Justice – or it may be the Secretary of State for Justice or it might be the Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid – to intervene in the proceedings to make such submissions as are appropriate in relation, in particular, to the argument that in a situation such as this the expenditure which is not available from the Legal Aid Agency but which, in the view of the court, if it be the view of the court, is necessary to be incurred to ensure proceedings which are just and fair, can be met either from the Legal Aid Agency by route of the other certificate, the mother’s certificate, or directly at the expense of the court.

 

 

I appreciate that this is a case in which, as Miss Spooner points out, there have already been too many adjournments of supposedly final hearings. I appreciate it is a case which has been going on for the best part of four years, which is depressing to say the least. And I am very conscious of the fact that the mere existence of the proceedings, and they must seem to the mother and her son to drag on interminably, is having a significant impact both on the mother and also on the parties’ son. Factoring that in as I do, it does seem to me that some further, but limited, delay is inescapable if I am to do justice not merely to the father but, as I have emphasised, also to the parents’ son.

 

 

I shall accordingly, in terms which I will draft, adjourn this matter so that the relevant ministry can intervene if it wishes to and on the basis that if it does not I will have to decide the issues I have canvassed without that assistance. I will reserve the matter to myself. I will direct that the hearing takes place as soon as it possibly can after the forthcoming short vacation. I would hope that the hearing can take place in front of me in June.

 

 

This is about nine years too late for the general principle, and a year late for the LASPO position which left almost all parents in private law cases unrepresented (I suspect that the father’s rights movements would also say that as a result of relative incomes, there were a huge number of cases in which fathers had to represent themselves because they had slightly too much money for legal aid representation but not nearly enough to pay privately, and I have some sympathy with that position)

 

It is welcome anyway, even if it is late.

 

The President helpfully gives people a valuable little crib-sheet in case they WERE asking the Legal Aid Agency to grant legal aid in the s10 LASPO exceptional circumstances

 

Putting it in the language of FPR 2010 1.1, the court is required to deal with this matter “justly” and by ensuring “so far as is practicable” that the case is dealt with “fairly” and also “that the parties are on an equal footing.” That is the obligation of the court under domestic law. It is also the obligation of the court under Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention. Despite what Miss Spooner says, I am left with the strong feeling that I cannot deal with the matter today justly and fairly by acceding to her submission.

 

As I have said, the domestic obligation on the court is to act justly and fairly and, to the extent that it is practicable, ensure that the parties are on an equal footing. In the well-known case of Airey v Ireland (Application no 6289/73) (1979) 2 EHRR 305, the European Court of Human Rights held as long ago as 1979 that there could be circumstances in which, without the assistance of a legally qualified representative, a litigant might be denied her Article 6 right to be able to present her case properly and satisfactorily. In that particular case, the court held that Ireland was in breach of Mrs. Airey’s Article 6 rights because it was not realistic in the court’s opinion to suppose that, in litigation of the type in which she was involved, she could effectively conduct her own case, despite the assistance which the judge affords to parties acting in person.

 

 

Mantovanelli v France (Application no 21497/93) (1997) 24 EHRR 370, a judgment given by the court in March 1997, indicates the significance of the right to an adversarial hearing guaranteed by Article 6 specifically in the context of an expert’s report which was “likely to have a preponderant influence on the assessment of the facts by [the] court.”

 

 

I mention those cases merely as illustrative of the kind of issues which arise in this kind of situation. I emphasise I do so without expressing any view at all as to whether, in the circumstances I am faced with, unless there is some resolution of the present financial impasse, there would be a breach of either Article 6 or Article 8.

 

 

 

You may have noticed that I haven’t come on to the facts of the case yet, which is not my usual approach. You may be wondering what the facts of this case are that led to the President being so troubled about the father’s human rights (especially given that there was no such intervention on the D v K case where a father was accused of rape by the mother in private law proceedings and not given legal aid, leaving him in the position of facing those very serious allegations without a lawyer and the mother in the position of being cross-examined by the father directly, something which would be illegal if it happened in a criminal trial http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/700.html   So it must be something worse than that?)

 

 

Well, this, I’m afraid is one that the Daily Mail would exhaust the entireity of the “Outrage” section of Roget’s Thesaurus

 

The father is a convicted sex offender, having convictions for sexual offences with young male children, the second of which was committed during the currency of these proceedings.

 

 

That’s right – the man who the President has gone to the wall for, to defend his human rights, to single out and say “This is the case where I must defend the father’s rights” is a convicted paedophile seeking to have contact with his seven year old son.

 

[That, sadly, is the point of human rights, that they are universal and apply to the most deserving and those who the general public might regard as undeserving and beyond the pale. It isn’t great PR for those who support human rights – including myself, when it is cases like this that stir our courts into upholding rights. It does seem from time to time that the more unsavoury you appear to be, the more thought the Court give to your rights. I hope it only seems that way.

 

If you were to hold a national referendum on whether this man, a convicted paedophile, should get to see his seven year old son, I don’t imagine that it would be a finely balanced result. I don’t think bookmakers would be giving very good odds on “No” ]

 

 

 

 

Back to the legal debate, the President felt that just because the report was against the father that would not determine the matter

 

Tempting though it is to think that the father’s case is totally lacking in merit, it does seem to me, despite everything Miss Spooner has said, and recognising the constraints which may be imposed on cross-examination by the fact that, in part, challenge on behalf of the father would be to his own expert, I am unpersuaded that there are not matters in these reports which could properly be challenged, probed, by someone representing the father.

 

 

For example, a perfectly proper line of cross-examination of JD might be along these lines, “In part at least, your analysis of the risks that the father poses to his son, as opposed to other children, is based upon the account you have had from the mother of what went on in the family home.” It would seem, bearing in mind the language of JD’s report, that the answer could only be, “Yes.” The next question then might be, “Suppose for the sake of argument that the true picture at home was not what the mother says but a very different picture presented by the father. Just suppose that. Would that affect your opinion?” I use that only by way of illustration of a wider point that could be made in relation to these reports. That seems to me to be a proper and appropriate line of cross-examination.

 

 

My problem and ultimately Miss Spooner’s problem is that it is completely a matter of speculation as to what JD’s answer would be to the last question I formulated. The answer might be, “It does not make the slightest difference at all because of X, Y, Z”, in which case the father’s case might evaporate. It might be, “Well, yes, that might make a difference.” The point is we simply do not know

 

 

 

[If you are thinking at this point – well all of that seems like it could apply to ANY witness who was against you, and thus ANY case –mmmmm, yes, I agree. This could be a very critical case for the Government and LASPO. If they don’t take it seriously, it could put a serious hole in their policy about legal aid]

 

 

What were the Court’s possible options to resolve this unthinkable impasse?

 

Assuming that public funding in the form of legal aid is not going to be available to the father, because his public funding has been withdrawn and an appeal against that withdrawal has been dismissed, and on the footing that, although the father has recently gained employment, his income is not such as to enable him to fund the litigation, there is a pressing need to explore whether there is any other way in which the two problems I have identified can be overcome, the first problem being the funding of the attendance of the experts, the second being the funding of the father’s representation

 

 

There may be a need in this kind of situation to explore whether there is some other pocket to which the court can have resort to avoid the problem, if it is necessary in the particular case – I emphasise the word “necessary” – in order to ensure a just and fair hearing. In a public law case where the proceedings are brought by a local authority, one can see a possible argument that failing all else the local authority should have to pay. In a case such as the present where one party is publicly funded, because the mother has public funding, but the father does not, it is, I suppose, arguable that, if this is the only way of achieving a just trial, the costs of the proceedings should be thrown on the party which is in receipt of public fundsThere may be a need in this kind of situation to explore whether there is some other pocket to which the court can have resort to avoid the problem, if it is necessary in the particular case – I emphasise the word “necessary” – in order to ensure a just and fair hearing. In a public law case where the proceedings are brought by a local authority, one can see a possible argument that failing all else the local authority should have to pay. In a case such as the present where one party is publicly funded, because the mother has public funding, but the father does not, it is, I suppose, arguable that, if this is the only way of achieving a just trial, the costs of the proceedings should be thrown on the party which is in receipt of public funds.

It is arguable that, failing all else, and bearing in mind that the court is itself a public authority subject to the duty to act in a Convention compliant way, if there is no other way of achieving a just and fair hearing, then the court must itself assume the financial burden, as for example the court does in certain circumstances in funding the cost of interpreters.

 

 

May I be very clear? I am merely identifying possible arguments. None of these arguments may in the event withstand scrutiny. Each may dissolve as a mirage. But it seems to me that these are matters which required to be investigated in justice not merely to the father but I emphasise equally importantly to the son, as well as in the wider public interest of other litigants in a similar situation to that of the father here. I emphasise the interests of the son because, under our procedure in private law case like this where the child is not independently represented, fairness to the child can only be achieved if there is fairness to those who are litigating. There is the risk that, if one has a process which is not fair to one of the parents, that unfairness may in the final analysis rebound to the disadvantage of the child

 

 

 

 

If you have ever watched a submarine movie (and if you haven’t, you have wasted your life to date), you will be familiar with the sequence where disaster strikes, water breaches the hull and red lights go on and a siren blasts “Arooogah Aroogah” for the next twenty minutes of the film, where men in crewneck jumpers and/or bellbottoms use wrenches on pipes and doors burst open and water pours in.

 

That submarine disaster sequence is  pretty much what the scene at Her Majesty’s Court Service would be like when they read this line from the President

 

 

. It is arguable that, failing all else, and bearing in mind that the court is itself a public authority subject to the duty to act in a Convention compliant way, if there is no other way of achieving a just and fair hearing, then the court must itself assume the financial burden, as for example the court does in certain circumstances in funding the cost of interpreters

 

 

What the President is saying there is, if a situation arises in which a party’s human rights would be breached by having to conduct litigation without a lawyer and the Legal Aid Agency won’t pay, it might have to come out of the Court’s budget, otherwise the Court would be breaching the party’s human rights.

 

Aroogah! Aroogah!

 

 

In private law, if someone is going to have to pay for legal representation to prevent a breach of article 6 and article 8, the options are basically limited to the Legal Aid Agency or the Court (either way, it is coming out of Mr Grayling’s budget)

 

Aroogah! Aroogah!

 

Luckily, we know from Mr Grayling’s comments about the completely opaque terrorism trial of AB and CD that “We must trust the Judges” and on that basis, I’m sure that Mr Grayling will stand by that, and not bring a Silk along to talk the President out of it, or appeal any decision that the President might make.

 

And also note that the President drags the poor old Local Authority into this, despite being a private law case that they aren’t involved in.

 

In a public law case where the proceedings are brought by a local authority, one can see a possible argument that failing all else the local authority should have to pay

 

 

It is wrong, and probably a contempt of Court for me to refer to the President of the Family Division as Dude – so let’s for a moment imagine that I am talking about someone entirely different  (which I am, I am addressing a friend of mine who has just made this very suggestion, in coincidentally the same words that the President used), but

 

Dude !

 

Are you saying that if a child has a fractured skull, and the suspects are mother and mother’s boyfriend, and mother’s boyfriend can’t get legal aid, the Local Authority should pay for the boyfriend’s lawyers to fight the case against them? That it would be fine for those lawyers to be paid by the applicant in the proceedings, who is running a case directly in opposition to their client?

 

Dude!

 

 

[I think in the light of Re T, we’d see what the Supreme Court thought about that. The answer it seems to me, is that we need our Courts to unlock s10 LASPO exceptions by saying that these cases would be an article 6 breach in accordance with the spirit of Airey v Ireland, and it would be Wednesbury unreasonable for the Legal Aid Agency to decide otherwise once a judge has ruled that there would be an article 6 breach. IF that is the path that the President goes down, it seems to me to have the potential to punch a big hole in the hull of HMS LASPO – it is lucky that Mr Grayling trusts the Judges]