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.
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  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.
‘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.