Friday, 31 October 2014

Family Court and (lack of) legal aid

Sir James Munby P
Government 'washing its hands' of legal aid problem for vulnerable parents - Owen Bowcott - The Guardian 31st October 2014

The legal aid regime currently in place for "public law" family cases has this, to say the least, highly bizarre effect:

A parent whose child is subject to an application for a care order under Children Act 1989 s.31 is automatically entitled to legal aid, irrespective of means. Not so a parent whose child is living at home under a care order and who wishes to challenge a local authority's proposal to remove the child.

Here are two parents who are beset by problems and face the possibility of their child being adopted.  They do not qualify for legal aid and lawyers have acted for them without remuneration (pro bono).

The President of the Family Division (Sir James Munby) has handed down a very robust judgment - Re D (A Child) [2014] EWFC 39.  Please read it in full.  He said [para 3]:

'What I have to grapple with is the profoundly disturbing fact that the parents do not qualify for legal aid but lack the financial resources to pay for legal representation in circumstances where, to speak plainly, it is unthinkable that they should have to face the local authority's application without proper representation.' [My emphasis].

At paras. 31 and 32, Sir James summed up the problems facing the parents:

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

  2. 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."
  3. In addition to these fundamental problems there are a number of more practical but very important points:

  4. i) I have already noted that those working pro bono for the parents are not merely working for no fee but also having to pay their travel and other expenses out of their own pockets and, in the case of Ms Stevens, agreeing in addition to indemnify the Official Solicitor. ii) There is also the problem that the parents do not have the money to travel to court unless it is very close to home. The very practical question of how the parents were to pay the cost of coming to court in London for the hearing on 8 October 2014 was resolved only because the local authority agreed, but explicitly without any future commitment, to make an ex gratia payment.
    iii) The mother and the father may require the use of an intermediary, not merely in the court setting but also, for example, when meeting professionals out of court. An intermediary at court is paid for by Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service: see Q v Q, Re B (A Child), Re C (A Child) [2014] EWFC 31, para 52. But who is to pay the costs of any intermediary whose use is necessary for the purposes of meetings with professionals out of court?
    and then at paras 36 and 37, Sir James said:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.


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