Human Rights Act Claims in Family Proceedings – the costs catch 22 resolved?

This case just published : Re BB (A Child) [2016] EWFC B53 (26 June 2016), HHJ Murfitt.

In brief :

A Circuit Judge case, so not binding authority.

Care proceedings following s20 drift (1 yr +).

Child’s legal rep brought HRA claim – conceded by LA and damages £7,500 and declarations agreed.

BUT : the LAA would recoup from the damages not only the costs of the HRA claim (separate certificate) but also the care proceedings before any benefit were received by the child – so given the size of HRA damages awards this would mean basically no net benefit to child in this (and most other cases), meaning that the requirement for the court to provide “just satisfaction” or an “effective remedy” would not be achieved.

What to do?

Theis J dealt with a similar claim in Kent County Council v M & K (by her children’s guardian) [2016] EWFC 28, but it did not seem from that judgment as if this issue was fully aired, and possibly neither the advocates nor the court had appreciated the full breadth of the LAAs power (and duty) to recoup costs against damages through the statutory charge provisions – having looked into this it is pretty clear that the recoupment provisions and guidance mean that there is limited scope for the LAA to turn a blind eye to damages recovered where any costs remain outstanding – the costs of care proceedings are likely to swallow whole most HRA awards.

Annoyingly on a personal level, another Reed (no relative) got to argue a point I’ve been lining up twice now (but my HRA cases have gone off in other directions so it has not happened): that you either have to up the damages to cover the costs that will be recouped by the LAA OR make an award of costs of both the care proceedings AND HRA claim so there is nothing to recoup. In this instance (for various reasons some of which were specific to this case) the court preferred the latter course of action, by proper reference to what was permissible under the rules and authorities on a costs application – the LA’s pre-issue conduct (i.e. the HRA breaches) had not been blameless so it was conduct that could properly be taken into account AND the conduct of the litigation was also said to be not entirely reasonable (actually this is oddly expressed in the judgment as “I have not found that Thurrock Borough Council has behaved entirely reasonably in the litigation” which sounds a little bit like an improper reversal of the burden).

Anyway, is this a case of “happy days – a solution to the conundrum”? Yes, in this case at least. I’m not sure however that this case necessarily represents an answer to all such cases. As the court rightly points out this is an expensive business for cash strapped LAs – why should they have to pay the full costs of care proceedings even where the case they brought is justified and the orders they sought have been made? One answer of course is that they should not breach a child’s human rights in the first instance, and that any pain they feel in having to stump up is frankly not the child’s problem, who has an entitlement to proper redress regardless. But the regulations applicable to one public body (the LAA) and the need for a LA to preserve funds to meet the needs of other children are in real tension – and an award of costs should not be made simply because a receiving party is publicly funded or because the paying party is a public body.

In this instance, the culpable conduct of the LA in allowing drift, in failing to issue, in compelling the G to issue a HRA claim through its actions – were sufficient to found a costs order. In other cases it will be necessary for the court to look at the conduct which is said to have preceded the HRA claim and it is likely that this will be fact specific exercise rather than some sort of semi-automatic award of costs – the costs rules do not include a “costs follow the event” presumption that can be easily applied to every HRA claim or that can be easily transposed to connected but distinct care proceedings where the merits and “winners” may be different.

It seems to me that any LA advocate will be duty bound (in the absence of specific instructions to concede) to resist an application for a costs order of this magnitude, so these costs applications will need to be argued, and a proper balancing exercise / analysis carried out in each case. It is likely to be only a matter of time before such a case goes on appeal – which would be welcome if it produces some clear and binding guidance on the proper approach to take. Circuit Judge decisions are illuminating and helpful in terms of sharing ideas and thinking through possible approaches and pitfalls – but they are not precedent.

Also worth noting, although again not binding – this particular judge leaves open the possibility of an argument in other cases that the damages should simply be uplifted by an amount equivalent to the costs sting that will come in due course. That wasn’t appropriate in that case because the matter had been settled for a specific sum subject to costs, but it could still be run in other cases (and cases could be settled on the basis that damages include a notional figure for the statutory charge although I think it is unlikely any LA will agree such a package unless and until the High Court or appellate court has looked at this and it has been fully argued).

Apologies for any typos and the lack of graceful construction – wanted to blog about this but am racing against approaching zonking out having just spent 3 days “doing London” with the kids (gosh, isn’t Trafalgar square much nicer without the pigeon sh*t everywhere?).

Attendance of solicitors at LA Children Act meetings

The Law Society appears to have picked up on a bone of contention or area of confusion here, and has issued a practice note clarifying what, in it’s view, is the role of lawyers at CPC conferences and other CA meetings. It confirms that it is appropriate for LA solicitors to attend such meetings even where parents are represented but their representatives are not present at the meeting – and also sets out some of the limitations on what the LA solicitor can and cannot properly do in such meetings. It all sounds quite tricky to navigate, frankly.

Anyway, for those of you who attend such meetings or advise clients at these early stages – here is the guidance note.

Two million things wrong with a daily mail headline? you don’t say

Me, trying desperately not to spit feathers over on The Transparency Project about that DM headline about Ben Butler’s legal aid. Do send it to any of your “outraged” friends who struggle to understand why evil man gets briefcase full of cash….

Two million things wrong with this headline

Also – stop with the “custody battle” BS – please? It’s been 30 years FGS.