Posts in the ‘Legal Aid’ Category

6 months of a new ‘Deprivation of Liberty’: March – August 2014

Posted on: August 11th, 2014 by Jess Flanagan

I’ve written a lot on my team’s blog about the game changing Supreme Court judgment of what is known to all of us Court of Protection ‘geeks’ as ‘Cheshire West.’

I have been pretty silent on this blog, as my energies went on ensuring that our Clarke Willmott blog readers were kept up to date. Today, I have had the honour of having my piece hosted on the Family Law website, and thought I would take this opportunity to summarise my pieces over the past 6 months following the judgment in March. More for me to have a record of it all than for anything else. It has been an exiting, and increasingly busy 6 months and there is no certainty as to how it is all going to pan out.

I speak almost daily to IMCAs and RPRs who have seen referrals increase unspeakably; to Local Authority lawyers who are wondering how they are best to advise their client Adult Services departments to deal with backlogs of assessments for Standard Authorisations; and to care home managers who are just about realising the implications of it all (and hearing about others who still haven’t got a clue!. The press is now starting to get wind of the real cost involved and with the Supreme Court judgment resulting in most adults who lack capacity to consent to their care arrangements requiring their placements to be authorised, and it being abundantly clear that any deprivation of liberty in a supported living or independent placement which is paid for, or arranged by the state in some ‘non negligible’ way, must be authorised, this simple change in legal test has some really good but really frightening implications for Adult Services in England & Wales.

My colleague Joanna Burton introduced the judgment in her summary piece in March and following a flippant comment I made on twitter resulted in Simon Burrows from Kings Chambers coming along to our Bristol office in April to set out the initial implications of the judgment to a full house of health and social care professionals, private client lawyers, RPRs and IMCAs. I set out my review of that talk in another piece on the Clarke Willmott blog.

Two months after the judgment I was invariably talking a lot more about DOLS and what the statutory safeguards were there for. I was spending (and still do spend) a lot of time reminding care home staff, the individual who is deprived of their liberty and their families that a Standard Authorisation is NOT a DOLS Order and it is not something that can be ‘lifted’. It is a tough thing to explain to someone who feels detained, and to all intents and purposes is detained, but is actually deprived of their liberty because of the arrangements required to keep them safe. So I wrote about DOLS being safeguards, not imprisonment in order to try and spread the word…

Those first three months were so exciting that DOLS was the feature of our second edition of the Court of Protection and Health & Social Care Newsletter and there is a summary of what the House of Lords Committee’s report on the Mental Capacity Act 2005 in there somewhere.

I haven’t blogged about the Government’s response to the House of Lord’s Select Committee report because it was really quite sad. I think the most important thing for us to take away from it is that the statutory scheme isn’t going to change any time soon, and non means tested legal aid (that P is eligible for when challenging a Standard Authorisation in the Court of Protection)is not going to be available when P requires representation in the Court of Protection when authorisation is being sought for Deprivation of Liberty in supported, or independent living environments. I blogged about what I might like to ask the Government as a result. The story behind this was a senior partner in my firm was invited to an audience with the Minister of Courts and Legal Aid and asked if I had any questions. I did and I set this out for him to take with him. The minister cancelled. Perhaps he knew he was likely to face some really tricky questions…

So, this brings me nicely on to Thursday’s judgment and my piece published on Family Law today. Sir James Munby has produced guidance for Local Authorities to follow when making applications to the Court of Protection to authorise a DOL in placements other than care homes and hospitals. He will deal with other issues and provide more detail in due course, but this is a start.

Happy reading.

I am keeping a close eye on how all of this pans out in reality and especially in respect of how local advocates cope with the pressure and how the safeguards really do safeguard people, not imprison. So, if anyone has any experiences they want to share, please don’t hesitate to get in touch to chat it through.

Legal Aid for Community Care

Posted on: August 10th, 2014 by Jess Flanagan

I remain really quite pleased that Clarke Willmott was successfully awarded a contract to provide legally aided Community Care advice in Southampton and Bristol. In one week I have been able to help two new clients in a way I wouldn’t have been able to before we had this contract.

At the sake of sounding like a broken record, I thought I would repeat what I said about legal aid on our Elderly Care and Court of Protection blog, as I am so proud of the work we can now do to help those who really need it:

Providing Legal Aid for Community Care matters

“From 1 August 2014, Clarke Willmott will be in a position to offer our clients legally aided advice in respect of Community Care matters. From challenging Social Services and Continuing Healthcare assessments, to advising on applications for Judicial Review and in the Court of Protection, our team may be able to assist you. Until now, we have only been able to provide advice when a case is already in the Court of Protection, or if a hearing in the Court of Protection will be required.

Our contract with the Legal Aid Agency will enable us to advise eligible individuals and provide support for them at best interests meetings. These may take place way before a court hearing is necessary and can provide assistance in setting out views and evidence, to try to avoid the need for any court application.

Jess Flanagan, an Associate in the Clarke Willmott Court of Protection team says: ‘Everyone in the team is delighted that we can now provide legally aided support to the public, especially at a time when the austerity measures continue to bite in the Social Care world. With access to legal advice when an issue arises, as opposed to when the case is before the court, many clients will be able to avoid the lengthy and sometimes exhausting court process.’

To be eligible for legal aid an individual must have gross income of less that £2657, disposable income of less than £733 per month (combined with your partner if you are living with them) and capital of less than £8,000. It is a complicated and rigorous assessment, so if you are unsure, please call Jess Flanagan on 0845 209 1160.”

In the midst of all the challenges faced by legal aid practitioners and those they try so hard to support, I am so proud of what additional support we can now offer.

Transforming Legal Aid – restricting access to justice in the Court of Protection?

Posted on: February 6th, 2014 by Jess Flanagan

The Legal Aid Agency recently published this statement on its website:

Two important reforms which are part of the legal aid transformation programme go live from Monday 27 January.

These are:

1. Borderline merits – removing legal aid for civil cases with borderline prospects of success 

2. Crown Court eligibility – introducing a financial eligibility threshold

 As a civil lawyer I am concerned predominantly with the cuts to civil legal aid. That cases now initially assessed as having ‘Borderline’ merit will no longer benefit from legal aid, troubles me greatly.

In June 2013 I responded to the Ministry of Justice consultation: Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system’ (Ministry of Justice, April 2013). In September, a paper I wrote on the impact that the proposed ‘transformations’ would have on access to justice in the Court of Protection was published in the Elder Law Journal [2013] Eld LJ (Issue 3 Volume 3), by Jordans Publishing (please see http://www.jordanpublishing.co.uk/publications/private-client/elder-law-journal for further information on this excellent publication).

I expressed grave concern at the proposal to remove borderline cases from the scope of legal aid, and I have obtained permission to replicate that part of my article on my blog. What is set out below is a condensed version of the article, a full copy of which can be obtained by approaching Jordans Publishing direct.

Over the years I have been involved in legal aid practice, I have frequently had to adapt to the changes, cuts and withdrawals of various services for clients and providers alike. I have acted and continue to act for elderly clients with cognitive impairment who have been deprived of their liberty in a care home contrary to their wishes, and for family members of dementia sufferers who are trying desperately to uphold the welfare wishes of their loved ones in the face of risk averse and protective public authority decision makers.

The purpose of the paper was to discuss the impacts of the proposals set out in the Consultation Paper  Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system’ (Ministry of Justice, April 2013), which included proposals to cut civil legal aid that in my view will fundamentally change access to legal representation in welfare proceedings in the Court of Protection. In turn, this will result in restricting access to justice in some of the most complex and significant issues concerning vulnerable and elderly people.

Information about the types of disputes that the Court of Protection hears can be found elsewhere in this blog and on the Elderly Care and Court of Protection. The current process for obtaining Legal Aid for disputed welfare applications in the Court of Protection (excluding applications in relation to the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DOLS) brought under s.21A Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA), for which there is no means assessment), is summarised below and in more detail in the paper.

In order to benefit from legal representation funded by Legal Aid within contested welfare proceedings, the circumstances of the matter in dispute had to concern an individual’s life; liberty; physical safety; medical treatment; capacity to marry or to enter into a civil partnership; capacity to enter into sexual relations; or right to family life. In addition the court must have ordered or was likely to order an oral hearing at which it was necessary for the applicant for funding to be legally represented. Given the nature of the disputes often before the Court of Protection, obtaining funding on merits is not particularly onerous.

Funding for Court of Protection matters was barely affected by the recent changes to public funding brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) but there are some key changes that would be brought about if the proposals set out in the consultation document were to come into effect.

The Importance of accessing Legal Representation

This section appears slightly differently in the article, but it is important to understand the importance of legal representation in particularly complex matters. This leads on to the point I make below about the importance of funding being available for what initially may be viewed as ‘borderline’ cases.

When a public authority is involved in a Court of Protection case, experienced and prominent counsel will be instructed to advise and represent the relevant department throughout the proceedings, preparing information in a way the court can access quickly and efficiently, and providing their client department with expert advice in a timely fashion. Usually, a social worker can access legal advice and representation from their Local Authority legal department without the financial concerns a lay person will experience.

Section 4 MCA 2005 sets out that, when determining what is in the best interests of someone who lacks capacity to make the decision themselves, the decision maker (including a Judge of the Court of Protection) must consider all relevant circumstances and must take into account the views of anyone engaged in caring for the person or interested in his welfare and where possible, consult them as part of the best interests analysis.

Some carers or family members find it difficult to express exactly what they need to tell the court. Some are too scared or feel threatened by the process, with the result that their views are not put to the court in a way it can properly consider. Some may become defensive or too difficult for a public authority opponent to work with – having access to expert legal advice can assist to smooth the path greatly.

A similar point can be made in respect of ‘P’ (the person that the court is concerned with) as section 4 also requires the decision maker to take into account P’s past and present wishes and feelings. On occasion the court will want to hear from P him/herself or through a litigation friend if P lacks litigation capacity. If that litigation friend wants P to benefit from legal representation, which is often the case when the Official Solicitor is invited to act in that capacity, the same process for obtaining legal aid needs to be undertaken.

The point I make is this – in complex proceedings, individuals need to be represented by experienced lawyers who can assist them in providing the court with information that may be fundamental to making a best interests decision that is in accordance with the provisions of MCA 2005. A separate point is that legal representation is often required to ensure that there is equality of arms between the parties.

The first question relevant to my type of work concerns the ‘Residence Test’. I will discuss this in another separate blog post at another time, as it may be relevant to an appeal that has been sought in the recent case concerning ‘habitual residence’, Re PO.

Q6. Do you agree with the proposal that legal aid should be removed for all cases assessed as having “borderline” prospects of success? Please give reasons.

This paragraph appears exactly as it does in the original article

Under the Access to Justice Act 1999 (A2J) and LASPO, in order for an applicant to benefit from civil Legal Aid their case must satisfy the merits criteria. Where legal representation is required, this includes looking at the likely costs of the case, the prospects of success and the outcome sought by the applicant for funding.

Under both A2J and LASPO, in order to benefit from Legal Aid the applicant’s solicitor will need to give an estimate of the prospects of successfully achieving the outcome the client wants – by indicating whether the prospects are very good (80%), good (60-80%), moderate (50-60%); borderline or poor.  Where the prospects are moderate or poor, the solicitor must provide an explanation as to why funding should be granted.

In the normal course, funding is generally only available for cases that are assessed as having moderate to very good prospects of success. However, when the matter is of ‘overwhelming importance’ to the applicant, or the case is of ‘significant wider public interest’, the requirement is to have at least borderline prospects of achieving the outcome desired by the applicant.

The Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2013 established under LASPO maintain the merits and prospects of success criterion and again, if the case is of significant wider public interest or is of overwhelming importance to the individual it only has to have borderline prospects of success. 

Court of Protection cases more often than not involve circumstances which are of overwhelming importance to the applicant and often bring into question ECHR rights. The terms of the Funding Code under A2J recognised this by ensuring that cases could be funded even where the evidence available at the point of making an application for funding was more supportive of restrictive decision making, usually contrary to what P and/or family members are seeking. In these types of cases it would be difficult to say that a case had moderate, or very good chances of success, due to the weight of the evidence available at the time. This is most evident in DOLS challenges made pursuant to Section 21A MCA 2005. Although the application for funding should include representations that the applicant has some relevant argument to pursue against the authorisation depriving them of their liberty, a fundamental human right is at stake and in my experience this is the primary issue in obtaining funding, even if there are only borderline prospects of success at the time of the application.

In cases where a fundamental human right is not engaged, one has to be slightly more persuasive in arguing that a case has more than borderline prospects of success. In some cases, it is sometimes difficult to see any prospects at all when you have only seen the evidence submitted on behalf of the opponent, more often than not a public authority.

As an adviser I am frequently presented with vast amounts of ‘evidence’ of safeguarding concerns that portray a family member or members as being abusers or culpable of neglect.  Experience has taught me such information cannot always be taken at face value. Public bodies are very able to put together large bundles of documents to discredit a particular carer, who would find it difficult to dispute what is said due to lack of time (normally due to their caring role) or lack of understanding as to how to go about addressing the allegations. Once legal aid has been granted and further evidence requested, analysed and checked against what was originally relied upon by an Authority, the picture is not always as bleak.  One example is a case where until recently an elderly gentleman was the sole carer for his wife who has had a dementing illness for over 25 years. Following a visit by an official from a public authority, notes were entered into the client’s record that, in the view of the family, put a negative spin on an otherwise positive (if not challenging) set of circumstances over the previous 5 years.  These notes resulted in concerns being raised amongst other professionals who otherwise had very little knowledge of the family or the history, causing enormous tension and mistrust of the husband’s ability to care appropriately for his wife. Had I not intervened, this less than accurate picture may have resulted in an elderly lady who wanted to live at home and be cared for by her husband being inappropriately placed into a care home.

When acting for an individual through a litigation friend, instructions can come from the Official Solicitor (the ‘OS’ – litigation friend of last resort) often very shortly before a hearing. A lawyer will have a very limited amount of time to consider the papers and make an application for funding in the normal way. More frequently, applications to the Court of Protection are made by public authorities seeking confirmation that its agents have made, or intend to make the correct and lawful decision in the best interests of an individual who lacks capacity. In these circumstances, the initial evidence is often presented in such a way to suggest the public authority’s decision is the ONLY legitimate option. Again, on further investigation, this is not always the case. Sadly this cannot be confirmed without some form of funding in place due to the huge amount of work involved. In these circumstances, where the merits look pretty bleak, assessing a case as having borderline prospects of success is the only way forward.

Without the ability to obtain public funding for borderline cases in Court of Protection matters, many individuals will be denied the benefit of having evidence against them properly tested and investigated. Judges may have no option but to simply ‘rubber stamp’ decisions made by public authorities that are based on incorrect interpretation of limited evidence. Judges will no doubt retain the integrity and fairness that is instilled within them and look at the evidence critically, but the court cannot itself seek specific evidence (other than directing reports and statements to be filed).  This is a risk that should not be taken.

The purpose of the proposals is to save costs to the Legal Aid bill. I suggest that removing Legal Aid for borderline cases in circumstances where the issue is of overwhelming importance to the individual concerned will not achieve this aim. Furthermore, the resulting pressure placed on other public budgets will increase. Family members who are not able to obtain funding for legal representation will often wish to pursue their case in any event as the outcome is so important to them and their loved one. In cases to determine whether an elderly person must be transferred to, or remain in a care home, some clients say the outcome sought is the difference between life or death. In my experience, individuals pursuing a case as litigants in person will be at increased cost to the public authority opponent and increase the strain on court time. The public authority will also have the ability to instruct the most expert counsel in Court of Protection proceedings, leading to the system becoming unfair and weighted heavily in favour of the public authority.

Post 27 January 2014, we shall hold our breath and wait and see what happens to those clients who may now not benefit from legal representation on the basis of the evidence stacked against them.

The final question that I responded to was Q33: Do you agree with the proposal that fees paid to experts should be reduced by 20%? I said no and argued that this would drive the effective experts away from providing reports. This would in turn result in poorer standards of reports, potentially leading to increased costs in arguing against the findings and a risk of the wrong decision being made on behalf of a vulnerable adult.

Where next?

‘The cuts may not have yet hit welfare disputes in the Court of Protection head on, whether under LASPO or in the current proposals, but if they are implemented, the proposals will make obtaining the right advice and the best evidence to uphold fundamental rights and choices even more difficult than it is already.’ This is from the original paper. Sadly, as we now know, the proposals are already starting to take effect. We await the publication of the response in the next couple of weeks. I have a feeling I might be re-visiting the other points raised in the original paper again.

 

#SaveUKJustice and Community Care Network meetings

Posted on: October 2nd, 2013 by Jess Flanagan

Since moving from Southampton to Bristol to start a new job I had to get to know my new surroundings, my new colleagues and make new friends. Today I realised another task I’ve been undertaking for the past 7 months and that is getting to know the networks of community care and social welfare organisations and individuals around me.

I speak to people, I attend seminars and meetings and I take up opportunities when they present themselves. Today was an example of how two of these opportunity collided into one, and I hope that as a result, a few more people understand what the real impact the cuts to legal aid will mean for the most vulnerable in our society. The ones who really need it. The people who are ridden rough shod by public authority decisions because they don’t fit in a specific set of criterion. The people who fall through the cracks and can’t ask for help themselves. Them.

When I first moved to Bristol, task #1 was to get to grips with moving from a legal aid environment to a corporate regional law firm. My roots are in high street and legal aid practice and as I am still able to offer some of my clients legal aid, I wanted to get to know who else in the area provided legal aid. I quickly got to know the lovely, hardworking and talented bunch at Avon and Bristol Law Centre. As the legal aid cuts bite deeper and deeper, law centres across the country are being forced to close. Avon and Bristol are determined to stay open. Not so that they all stay in jobs, but so that they can continue to help the thousands of children, young people, migrants, single mothers, victims of trafficking and vulnerable people who go through their door every year. They seek funding from elsewhere, but the cuts to legal aid, and the further proposals that are due to take effect soon are making it very difficult for them to stay open and able to serve those who need them.

I’ve tried to help where I can. If the Law Centre receives an enquiry on a subject that I can advise on, I will head down the road and see the client on a pro bono basis. This frees up the 1.5 community care solicitors to concentrate on work that brings in fees for them. The Law Centre also arranges quarterly network meetings for organisations, agencies and lawyers working within the realms of community care and social welfare in Bristol. I offered our offices for today’s meeting because all other options fell through. It was a good afternoon and I feel privileged that I was able to make a room available and take another pressure away from such a hard working group of people.

Whilst attendance today was low, we had a brilliant afternoon talking about community care law relating to children and young people. We had a talk from Caroline Miles from the Law Centre, who outlined the legislation and some of the hurdles she is having to go through at the moment, and the Safeguarding lead from Kids Company, which has just set up its first extra-London operation in Bristol. Business is booming for them and for other agencies who sent representatives today. They all say their job is getting more difficult and focussing a lot of trying to convince public bodies to do right by the young people who cross their paths.

Here comes the second strand. I am relatively active on twitter and i follow the SaveUk Justice and Save Justice UK campaigns. Last week i saw that Save Justice UK was looking for Ambassadors to encourage communities to sign postcards setting out concerns as to the further cuts to legal aid. Please see http://savejusticeuk.wordpress.com for more information. I had a ten minute discussion prepared. I didn’t use any of it, because as each topic of discussion came up in the meeting, I was able to make a point as to how,if the proposals to ‘transform legal aid’ came in as set out in the consultation, those jobs would become even more difficult and the people they were supporting would be left in an increasingly vulnerable state. The postcards were snapped up and signed, ready to be delivered to Nick Clegg later in the year.

Next week, my article about how the proposed cuts will impact on welfare proceedings In the court of protection will be published in the Elderly Law Journal and I will arrange for an executive summary to be posted here and elsewhere. I wrote it some time ago, but the fear of the further cuts and the damage they will do remains as strong as ever. Bringing people together who care and who can take action is one way to reinforce community and keep the support for those who really need it available and accessible.

I’m pretty pleased I’ve met such dedicated people within such a short time of being here.

The Residence Test

Posted on: June 4th, 2013 by Jess Flanagan

This proposal introduces a Residence Test for all people applying for civil legal aid. This has 2 parts:

 1. an individual would be required to be lawfully resident in the UK at the time that an appliction for legal aid was made; and

2. they must have been resident for at least 12 months continually.

 This test requires lawyers giving family, community care and housing advice to become immigration specialists in order to ascertain whether or not someone has a right to reside and how it can be evidenced. This is prior to legal aid being granted and as such, becomes another unfunded task for legal aid lawyers. Another incentive not to carry out these types of work.

 Whilst I do not have a professional view in respect of immigration or asylum cases, or indeed housing cases where an individual requires legal advice in respect of homeslessness, there will be times where foreign nationals will require representation for community care matters, including Court of Protection applications.

 Putting aside the well argued Human Rights points (please see response to consultation by the Housing Law Practitioners Association and the excellent briefing by the British Institute of Human Rights) the question that struck me is as follows:

 ‘What happens if a vulnerable adult, who may lack the requisite mental capacity to make decisions concerning their place of residence and care, is brought to this country by a member of their family against their will and arguably contrary to their best interests?’

 Section 63 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 gives effect to the Convention on the International Protection of Adults and Schedule 3 to the Mental Capacity Act 2005 provides for mutual recognition of protective measures imposed by a foreign court, even if that court isnt situated in a country that has signed up to the Convention. By refusing a foreign national access to our court by virtue of refusing them access to legal aid and legal representation could arguably constitute a breach of this Convention, which entered into force on 01.01.2009. Currently, individuals would be able to access legal aid should they be financially eligible for legal representation in proceedings to try and sort out what is in their best interests.

 Will this individual be caught by the proposal? If they have been brought here within the past 12 months – yes. Does this mean that the individual concerned, if they come to the attention of the Court of Protection and subject best interests proceedings, will fall foul of the 2nd part of the Residence Test and even if  they are financially eligible for legal aid will not benefit from legal representation? Yes.   

 This cannot be right and I would suggest further analysis of implementing a test that threatens to undermine the rule of law and the princples of equality before the law and is set to deny whole groups of people access to the courts.