Book Review: Legal Aid Handbook

Julia Belyavin

This review is a guest post written by  Julia Belyavin, barrister at St John’s Chambers, Bristol.

 

Legal Aid Handbook 2011/12, Ed Vicky Lang & Simon Pugh (Legal Action Group)

LAG Handbook

I’ll be honest, when I was reminded that I’d said I’d review the Legal Aid Handbook 2011/12, my heart sank.  It was definitely a ‘what was I thinking?’ moment.  And it is fair to say that the subject matter is, by its very nature, fairly dry and technical.  However, this guide compresses the need-to-know basics (plus a brief gallop through where we are now and quite where reforms might take us) into fewer than 400 pages.  Compared to the 3 volume LSC Manual, that alone makes it a godsend.  The language is clear, informative and as jargon free as it is realistic to expect in the circumstances.  Certainly from the perspective of a family barrister the information was accurate to the best of my knowledge and belief (if you’ll excuse the lawyer’s pun) and it was also very helpful to get a perspective on the duties (and workload) of solicitors.  Of course, given its length it is not and cannot be comprehensive but salient points are covered and there are useful references to the relevant parts of the Manual/LSC website (the latter particularly helpful, as the search engine rarely comes up trumps in my experience).  However, it gives advice about all stages of client representation, from assessing eligibility, representation (if required) and the small matter of receiving payment.  All in, this is a great starting point for any queries about legal aid, and a useful addition to the library.

The Legal Aid Handbook can be purchased from the LAG online bookshop here.

Media Access & Reporting

Thanks to Adam Wagner at UKHR Blog for alerting me to today’s* publication of “A joint publication of The President of the Family Division, the Judicial College and the Society of Editors” entitled “Media Access & Reporting”, which comes just as I was about to put finger to keyboard and begin to type a blog post containing a proposal in respect of that very topic…Of which more momentarily…

Apparently the document arises from “a group of lawyers and journalists, including representatives from both the print and broadcast media, [who] got together to talk to each other”. Whatever that means this is not, I think, a piece of work that the family bar were particularly aware was underway.

Regardless of that, it’s a pleasant surprise, because this is a really useful document for lawyer practitioners and for judges, albeit probably a bit inaccessible for non-legal interested minds. It is a job and a half gathering together all the source material whenever a reporting issue comes up, and this is a really comprehensive analysis of what rules apply in what cases, including in the Court of Protection. It is far more comprehensive and accurate in its points of detail than my previous blog posts and I will use it as a reference tool when such issues arise in my cases. It is also worth noting that there are some interesting, albeit rather esoteric, questions raised about a number of potential points of law, which do rather invite the attention of mischievous lawyers with too much time on their hands.

You can read the guidance on the Judiciary website here.

So, to the main point:

There is much concern at the LASPO proposals on legal aid. There are many individuals and organisations doing their best to bring to the attention of the public and parliament the reality of what these cuts will mean for ordinary people. Sound off for Justice produced an excellent video campaign featuring a hypothetical private law family dispute (a father seeking contact), but otherwise there is little concrete information out there to counter suggestions that public funds are being frittered away on legal aid for undeserving or trivial cases. Individuals involved in private law family cases are likely to be particularly hard hit by the proposed cuts, and whilst those involved in the field of family law are able to articulate the myriad reasons why the cuts would be catastrophic for access to justice somehow the message is not getting across as effectively in family law. I am concerned that family law will end up bearing the brunt, where concessions are made in other areas, because I think it is in many ways the easiest target. I have been pondering whether this difficulty is in large part because the impact of legal aid on people’s lives is not made real in family cases in the way that it is in other types of work. Unlike housing or PI, where vulnerable people who have been helped by legal aid are able to tell their story, there are no real case studies of family cases – because they cannot be reported.

I began to think a few weeks ago whether or not it would be appropriate in the court of my work to make an application for permission to report limited categories of information about cases in which I was involved, for the purposes of case studies. I have had several recent cases in which, if they were to take place after implementation of the proposed cuts, would result in chaos and catastrophe. I concluded that this would raise a number of practical difficulties, such as the obtaining of consent from both (all) parties and their lawyers, the drafting of the information proposed to be released, the mechanism by which such an application would be dealt with and the costs of the same. In the context of already packed lists, overworked lawyers and anxious parties this all seems a bit difficult.

But what if there were a recognised scheme for the reporting of information for the purposes of case study? It could look something like this:

  • There would need to be a short information sheet for provision to parties, opposing lawyers and judges
  • Applications could be dealt with on paper if agreed or at the conclusion of an already listed hearing if not
  • Lawyers would need to agree to make such applications pro bono as they would not be covered by public funding – there would be costs implications if a hearing had to be convened simply for the purpose of dealing with the application, and there would be difficulties if an opposing lawyer sought their costs. This does mean I think that most if not all applications could only proceed if by consent
  • There would need to be a pro forma / template setting out the categories of information which it is proposed should be disclosed, any categories or specific pieces of information which should NOT be disclosed, and in some cases it may be preferable for there to be an agreed statement of facts to be prepared for the purposes of disclosure
  • A pro forma draft order would need to be prepared
  • They types of information that might be covered could be:
    • type of case – contact, residence, etc
    • description of the central factual and legal issues,
    • summary of litigation history,
    • duration of hearings past and listed, who has or is likely to be cross examined and by whom and broadly on what topics,
    • if the case has or will involve allegations of d.v., non accidental injury, emotional or sexual abuse
    • whether there are any third parties involved and what their relation to the child and role in the case is
    • if there is a 9.5 / 16.4 guardian appointed or any experts
    • whether or not either party does or has qualified for legal aid, whether or not they are or have been represented and whether or not they would qualify under the new scheme (and if not why not).
    • any point of law or legal difficulty / novelty.
  • There would be no need to lift the usual anonymity provisions – any drafted case summary could identify the pseudonyms by which the parties / children should be referred in any publication
  • There would need to be consideration given to the mechanism for any press interviews that might be undertaken in respect of the case – and indeed if such an interview were to be permitted at all. This is potentially far more problematic, as there is potential for inappropriate material to slip out.
  • Scheme information could be circulated (and endorsed) via professional and representative bodies (FLBA, Law Soc, Resolution, Judiciary?)
I don’t know how many cases would ultimately be suitable, but it is frustrating to face daily examples of scenarios where the ability for at least one of the parties to be advised, represented and to deal with the litigation process is essential to the smooth operation of the case, the list and the court. Maudlin conversations between opposing lawyers at the court coffee machine pondering the unimaginable chaos that would ensue if both parties were litigants in person are replicated across the HMCTS estate with frightening regularity. We know what’s happening and what will happen, but are unable to advocate for legal aid because we are bound by confidentiality. The irony.
Am I mad? Could this be beaten into workable shape or is it a hair-brained scheme that would end up being a whole lot of pointless effort?
*no longer today – post got paused, midway…

Doing Violence to Legal Aid

I’ve noticed another teensy glitch in the grand plans to save money through what has now become fondly known as “the LASPO car crash“. And it’s this:

Respondents to non-molestation orders (harassment / domestic violence injunctions) rarely qualify for legal aid. The rationale is that such use of public funds is not justifiable where they can simply attend court as a litigant in person and offer an undertaking (a solemn promise to the court not to behave in a particular way, which is punishable by imprisonment and can stand in the stead of an non-molestation order).

The Legal Services Commission Decision Making Guidance says in respect of Respondents:

11. Legal Representation to defend domestic violence injunction proceedings will also be considered under section 11.10 of the Code. However, prospects of success and cost benefit criteria are unlikelyto be satisfied by a respondent to non molestation proceedings only, unless there are very serious allegations which are denied wholly or substantially. An exception is where there is any question of inability to defend for example because of mental incapacity or age, in which case a grant is likely to be justified. When considering cost benefit, the impact on the client of the order sought will always be taken into account, including any impact on contact or other related family proceedings. However in all cases the client will still need to demonstrate at least borderline prospects of wholly or substantially rebutting the allegations made.

12. In cases where the allegations are less serious or are admitted to a significant extent the main issue may well be whether the respondent should give an undertaking to the court and what form that undertaking should take. Legal Representation is unlikely to be granted in such cases but see paragraph 20.10 regarding the use of Legal Help (which can escape the application of a standard fee).

As to which I observe that in my experience paragraph 12 appears in practice to operate to cover almost all cases, not just those involving less serious or admitted allegations. It should be said that in cases where an occupation order is sought and a Respondent is liable to lose his home funding for representation is more often granted. 

The offer of an undertaking will only result in the conclusion of the case where it is accepted by the Applicant. An Applicant who insists on her order will be entitled to a determination. Remember this, it is important.

So, all of this works pretty well in many cases, less so in cases where for one reason or another an undertaking is not appropriate (for example because there is a need to equip the police with a specific power of arrest in case of any breach, or the need to back an order with criminal penalties if breached as an effective deterrent), where a litigant in person is left struggling with the evidence gathering process and may end up making a ham-fisted attempt to cross examine the ex s/he has (allegedly) previously abused, which is potentially traumatic for the victim or wrongly accused, and unsatisfactory for everyone.

Post LASPO the Applicant for a non-molestation order will be disinclined to accept an undertaking because if she does she will not qualify for legal aid in any children act proceedings (unless she is able to obtain some other “objective evidence” of the domestic violence):

“Undertakings are not in themselves sufficiently clear, objective evidence of domestic violence and, for that reason, we have decided that they should not be accepted for this purpose.” says the government in it’s response to the Justice Select Committee. This is not a new point, but one example of it’s discussion can be found in the shape of an article in The Guardian by Jon Robins last week: U-turn gives legal aid to victims of psychological domestic violence (although the last sentence, which suggests that: “violent wife-beaters can give an undertaking in court and effectively deny their victim access to legal aid” is not strictly accurate – remember that thing I told you was important? That. The applicant may, in effect, veto the use of an undertaking, but the respondent cannot veto the applicant’s right to a hearing on her application – although in less serious cases a judge may be reluctant to list for a contest if an undertaking is a plainly satisfactory solution to the problem at hand, and may apply a certain amount of pressure on the parties to settle a case in this way).

Currently, the justification for refusal to fund Respondents to non-mols is a pragmatic one rather than a principled one – no funding required because a contested hearing can be avoided through undertakings. The existing guidance already contains sufficient safeguards to significantly restrict the number of publicly funded respondents, so what justification is there for an outright bar on public funding for respondents, even in those cases where the allegations are very serious or where there are issues of capacity? In future NO Respondents to such applications will be eligible for funding, even though there is likely to be a significant upturn in the proportion of cases in which a contest becomes necessary, and consequently the number of cases in which findings of domestic violence are sought and made.

I know it is stating the obvious to point out that this seems to run contrary to the interests of justice and to cut across article 6, as if this were the only such shocking or surprising instance. It is of course only one of many glaringly awful scenarios that the man and woman on the clapham omnibus will be having to face in future. I’m just struck by how this example demonstrates unavoidably how unprincipled are the proposals in family cases, which appear to secure access to justice for alleged victims of domestic violence and to deny it to those who are said to be perpetrators (and to those fortunate enough not to have got caught up in domestic violence).

I haven’t yet seen any discussion of whether the LASPO proposals as they stand may be indirectly discriminatory, and it would take a lawyer with greater expertise in the field of discrimination than my own to properly analyse this, but…an argument might begin something like this:

The government talks a lot about zero tolerance of domestic violence against women and girls, but one can only assume that if asked they would say “Oh but yes of course, we also meant to refer to male victims – oops, slip of the tongue”. Routinely implying that domestic violence is always perpetrated by men on women demonstrates laziness and undermines the apparent sincerity on such important matters.

However, it remains the case that most often respondents to non-mol applications are male (no funding) and most often respondents to allegations of domestic violence in children cases are male (no funding) (Incidentally, I don’t know if the proportion of d.v. by gender is similar to the proportion of applications for protection by gender, but I have a hunch that a lower proportion of the d.v. that is carried out against male victims finds its way to the family courts than for women, for a range of cultural / social reasons). In both instances the applicant, most likely a woman, will be female and in receipt of public funding (as long as she has got her objective evidence, which she can be confident of obtaining since she has the advantage of a lawyer to cross examine her litigant in person ex and to argue her case). It seems to me that this differential treatment of alleged victim as compared to alleged perpetrator is likely to disproportionately disadvantage men (the government of course would have us all believe it disadvantages no-one at all, apart perhaps from a few cushty lawyers).

 

Note: This is poorly proof read, but I’m determined to get it up tonight. Apologies if syntax is wonky or garbled and punctuation is rather arbitrary.