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Everyone really ought to read Re D

 

I had meant to write about this over the weekend, but the Muse just never came to me.

 

Re D 2014

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/re-child-d.pdf

Please read Allan’s excellent piece here

http://celticknotblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/if-the-state-wants-to-take-your-child-be-prepared-to-represent-yourself/

 

Basically it is a judgment by the President, building on Q v Q, and also the decision of Baker J in Re D.  The case involved a child who was at home with parents under a Care Order – the LA felt it had gone wrong and removed the child. Baker J heard a case where the parents (the father lacked capacity) wanted to challenge that, and the only option seemed to be an application to Discharge the Care Order. Baker J found that the other option is an application under the Human Rights Act.

The parents did not qualify for legal aid as a result of LASPO, and thus were represented by counsel acting for free. Not ideal, because that is dependent on a man with learning difficulties (a) KNOWING that there’s something he can do and what it is and (b) convincing a lawyer to do the case for free for him.

 

Deep breath.

 

Next, what happened was that the Local Authority decided that they were not going to rehabilitate the child to the parents care and a Judge agreed. Due to the age of the child, the alternative plan was adoption. The Local Authority applied for a Placement Order, which authorises the child to be placed for adoption.

 

You will recall all of the Court of Appeal decisions this last year about how serious an order adoption is, so of course, if a parent is facing a plan to adopt their child, they get free legal advice and representation to fight the case, right?

 

Wrong.

 

IF THE PLACEMENT ORDER application happens WITHIN care proceedings, the parent has free legal advice and representation to fight the case. BUT, if the Placement Order is a stand-alone application (i.e the Care Order has already been made) then they do not qualify automatically for legal aid.

 

Instead they rely on the Legal Aid Agency deciding that their case is exceptional and that their human rights would be breached if they were not represented.  That’s the s10 LASPO powers that the LAA repeatedly fail to use, even when Judges tell them that if it is not used in a particular case it would breach the parents article 6 rights.

 

Even worse than that, because the father had no capacity, the Official Solicitor has to be invited to represent him. Without public funding, the Official Solicitor is potentially exposed to any costs order. So, in this case, the lawyers representing father (who, remember, aren’t earning a penny out of the case) had to give the Official Solicitor an INDEMNITY  – a legally binding promise that if the Court eventually made a costs order against the father that the other sides costs be paid, those would be met by the lawyers out of their own pockets rather than by the Official Solicitor.

 

If you think that it might be tricky to find a lawyer to represent you for no payment, it is, but it is possible. But I’ve never heard before of a lawyer representing someone for no payment who also took on a financial risk of paying the other sides costs. These were extraordinary people.

 

So, the case got before the President, it being one of those case post Q v Q, where the Court might consider who should pay for the parents legal costs.

 

The judgment DOES NOT deal with the merits of the case, or why the child was removed, or whether adoption is right or wrong – it is purely dealing with whether a system that simultaneously says “Adoption is the most draconian order available in the law” and “you can’t have a lawyer to fight it, even if you can’t read” is a fair system.

 

In the circumstances as I have described them, the parents’ predicament is stark, indeed shocking, a word which I use advisedly but without hesitation.

31. Stripping all this down to essentials, what do the circumstances reveal?

i) The parents are facing, and facing because of a decision taken by an agent of the State, the local authority, the permanent loss of their child. What can be worse for a parent?

ii) The parents, because of their own problems, are quite unable to represent themselves: the mother as a matter of fact, the father both as a matter of fact and as a matter of law.

iii) The parents lack the financial resources to pay for legal representation.

iv) In these circumstances it is unthinkable that the parents should have to face the local authority’s application without proper representation. To require them to do so would be unconscionable; it would be unjust; it would involve a breach of their rights under Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention; it would be a denial of justice.

(v) If his parents are not properly represented, D will also be prejudiced. He is entitled to a fair trial; he will not have a fair trial if his parents do not, for any distortion of the process may distort the outcome. Moreover, he is entitled to an appropriately speedy trial, for section 1(2) of the 1989 Act and section 1(3) of the 2002 Act both enjoin the court to bear in mind that in general any delay in coming to a decision is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare. So delay in arranging for the parents’ representation is likely to prejudice the child. Putting the point more generally, the court in a case such as this is faced with an inescapable, and in truth insoluble, tension between having to do justice to both the parents and the child, when at best it can do justice only to one and not the other and, at worst, and more probably, end up doing justice to neither.

vi) Thus far the State has simply washed its hands of the problem, leaving the solution to the problem which the State itself has created – for the State has brought the proceedings but declined all responsibility for ensuring that the parents are able to participate effectively in the proceedings it has brought – to the goodwill, the charity, of the legal profession. This is, it might be thought, both unprincipled and unconscionable. Why should the State leave it to private individuals to ensure that the State is not in breach of the State’s – the United Kingdom’s – obligations under the Convention? As Baker J said in the passage I have already quoted, “It is unfair that legal representation in these vital cases is only available if the lawyers agree to work for nothing.”

 

The President very neatly identifies the problem, but is there a solution?  (well, there’s an immediate one – declare s10 LASPO incompatible with article 6 – it is not being implemented as it is written, and in any practical sense it is now incompatible. Also the schedule in LASPO that does not provide for Placement Orders to attract non-means non-merit funding is incompatible with article 6)

 

We’re not going down that route yet though. Instead, the President keeps inviting the knuckle-heads who have got us into this mess to come up with a solution.

 

 

  • What then is the appropriate way forward?
  • If legal aid is not available for the parents then I need to explore whether there is some other public pocket to which the court can have resort to avoid the problem. There are, in theory, three other possible sources of public funding. As I said in

 

  1. Q v Q [2014] EWFC 7, para 18:

“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 … where one party is publicly funded … 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.”

I continued (para 19):

“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”.

The need for such investigation in the present case is, if anything, even more pressing than in

Q v Q.

I have accordingly directed that there be a further hearing at which, assuming that the parents still do not have legal aid, I shall decide whether or not their costs are to be funded by one, or some, or all of (listing them in no particular order) the local authority, as the public authority bringing the proceedings, the legal aid fund, on the basis that D’s own interests require an end to the delay and a process which is just and Convention compliant, or Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, on the basis that the court is a public authority required to act in a Convention compliant manner.

Copies of this judgment, and of the order I made following the hearing on 8 October 2014, will accordingly be sent to the Lord Chancellor, the Legal Aid Agency, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, inviting each of them to intervene in the proceedings to make such submissions as they may think appropriate. If they choose not to intervene, I shall proceed on the basis of the conclusions expressed in this judgment, in particular as I have set them out in paragraph 31.

In the meantime, bear in mind that any plan of the child being at home with a parent, or with a relative under a Care Order carries huge risks for all involved.

The parent may find themselves, if all goes wrong, faced with a removal that they haven’t got legal aid to fight, and a Placement Order application that they haven’t got legal aid to fight.

And a Local Authority may find themselves, depending on the outcome of the next stage, facing the prospect of paying parents lawyers to litigate against them in a future application for a Placement Order if it all goes wrong.

[I have a loophole solution to this, which I am happy to share with any lawyer who contacts me – I’m not going to put the solution up online to tip off the LAA as to the loophole though]

 

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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.