LAA annual report 2014-15

The LAA’s recently published annual report shows how much less money has been spent on securing legal advice and representation for the poorest people in England and Wales. There was an overall net reduction in expenditure of £244 million (all figures in £000), a further decrease from 2013-14, which was the first year of the LASPO scope cuts.  The reasons for the increase in crime higher were given as higher numbers of sitting days and more pages of prosecution evidence in more complex cases.

Funding type                                                          2014-15               2013-14

Civil legal help                                                       112,165                 129,776

Civil representation                                             510,212                  693,527

Crime lower                                                           332,578                 367,304

Crime higher                                                          586,457                 553,677

Central funds                                                          44,238                    89,070

The costs of legal aid administration reduced by £3.1 million, when calculated on a cash basis; although total administration costs rose by £3.3 million, largely due to the development of the widely criticised CCMS system for civil applications and bill processing, which will now not become mandatory until February 2016.

Key milestones noted include:

  • Sustained monthly above target levels for processing civil applications (97% in 20 working days)
  • Quicker processing of civil bills (99% in 25 days)
  • Reject rates for civil bills brought down to 9.2% (against a 15% target)
  • Call waiting times for the civil certificated helpline below 2 minutes 48 seconds
  • Abandoned call rate for the civil certificated helpline 10.47% (target 12%)

In relation to internal issues, the LAA:

  • Launched a management skills programme for their staff
  • Increased participation in their staff survey to 89%
  • Had lower staff sickness than the civil service average (7.1 days against 7.6 days)

Plans for the future include:

  • Concluding the legal aid change programme
  • Making CCMS compulsory
  • Finalising the transfer of crime application processing from HMCTS
  • Developing crime online billing
  • Improving telephone answering and support for digital working by providers
  • Making the LAA a better place to work

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Applying for legal aid for contempt

Following the judgment in Brown v London Borough of Haringey [2015] EWCA Civ 483 (our post here), the LAA has issued new guidance on applying for legal aid to represent those accused of contempt of court. As McCombe LJ said in Brown, this is criminal legal aid – even where the proceedings are in the civil courts – and so an application for a criminal representation order will be necessary.

Applications are made to the Nottingham office of the LAA, using form CRM14. If your firm doesn’t have a criminal contract, you will also need to apply for an individual case contract (ICC). Criminal legal aid for contempt is not means tested.

There is a guidance document for general contempt cases, and a separate one for applications for contempt cases in breach of injunctions made under Part 1 Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014.

Claims are made using form CRMCLAIM11 and the payment rates depend on the venue in which the contempt proceedings are heard. The LAA’s guidance unhelpfully refers to the 2013 Regulations “as amended” but doesn’t set out what the amendments are, where they are to be found, or acknowledge that an amended version of the 2013 Regulations isn’t available anywhere to the best of our knowledge.

These are the applicable payment rates:

There is an upper costs limit of £1,368.75 (£1,237.50 from 1 July) that can only be exceeded with prior approval from the LAA.

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New exceptional funding guidance published

The Lord Chancellor has published revised guidance on exceptional funding in non-inquest cases to take into account the judgment of the Court of Appeal in  Gudanaviciene & Ors, R (on the application of) v The Director of Legal Aid Casework & Ors [2014] EWCA Civ 1622 (see our post here). While it is welcome that the guidance has finally been updated, it is disappointing that it has taken six months.

Meanwhile, the High Court is hearing the Public Law Project’s systemic challenge to the exceptional funding scheme. More information about that case can be found on PLP’s website.

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MoJ presses ahead with litigator fee cuts

The legal aid minister, Shailesh Vara, made a written statement to the House of Commons today. In it he said that the second cut to Crown Court litigator fees of 8.75% will go ahead, effective from 1 July. The tender process for duty crime contracts will also go ahead. But the cut to advocate fees has been shelved.

The implementing regulations were also laid today, along with an impact assessment which, rather optimistically, concluded that

We do not anticipate there would be any major impact on future clients eligible for criminal legal aid services. Any impact on clients would be felt through a lack of legal aid coverage should providers be unable to sustain a second fee reduction. We believe that any potential problems with sustainability are mitigated by the changes to legal aid procurement and the harmonisation of fee structures, which seek to improve efficiency and simplify administration in the criminal legal aid provider market.

This conclusion may well be because the assumption made was that “Providers will deliver the same level and quality of service as at present”. If a starting assumption is that the policy won’t impact suppliers, it is unsurprising when the conclusion is that the policy won’t impact suppliers. We suspect the reality will be rather different.

Meanwhile, the LAA confirmed that it had received 1,099 bids from 500 separate organisations for duty provider contracts, which it described as “sufficient to undertake a viable competition”. We anticipate notifications of the outcome will be sent out in September.

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“Shadow legal aid scheme” blocked by Court of Appeal

In what we called the development of a “shadow legal aid scheme”, the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, said in Q v Q that in certain circumstances the Court could order that a party not eligible for legal aid be funded by HMCTS. In the first use of that power, HHJ Bellamy, in K & H, ordered that representation of a father be funded where serious allegations had been made against him and where he would otherwise have to cross-examine in person the child who made the allegations.

The Lord Chancellor appealed that decision, and the Court of Appeal has today given judgment – Re K & H (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 543 (case now on Bailii, and the judgment can also be downloaded from the Coram Childrens Legal Centre website – CCLC, and the Association of Lawyers for Children, intervened in the case).

Giving judgment, the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson said that there was no such power:

31. As the judge acknowledged, LASPO provides a comprehensive code for the funding of litigants whose case is within the scope of the scheme.  It is a detailed scheme.  I do not consider that it is possible to interpret either section 1 of the 2003 Act or section 31G(6) of the 1984 Act as giving the court the power to require the Lord Chancellor to provide funding for legal representation in circumstances where such funding is not available under a scheme as detailed and comprehensive as that which has been set up under LASPO.  The court must respect the boundaries drawn by Parliament for public funding of legal representation.  In my view, the interpretation adopted by the judge is impermissible: it amounts to judicial legislation.

37. For these reasons, I consider that section 1 of the 2003 Act does not give the court the power to require the Lord Chancellor to incur public expenditure in payment for legal representation in civil and family proceedings. The provision of legal services cannot be described as coming within the scope of the duty to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the carrying on of the business of a court.

41.The fact that costs associated with court hearings are on occasion met by HMCTS pursuant to the Lord Chancellor’s general duty under section 1 of the 2003 Act (to ensure that there is an effective and efficient system for the carrying on of the business of the family court) is not material to the funding of legal representation.

42. Most (if not all) of the considerations which I have mentioned above in relation to section 1 of the 2003 Act also lead me to conclude that section 31G(6) of the 1984 Act cannot be invoked to require the Lord Chancellor to fund legal representation to a litigant who does not qualify for legal aid because he does not satisfy the means test. Ms Whipple makes these further points which I accept.  First, section 31G(6) derives from section 73 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 which itself derives from the identical provision in the Magistrates’ Court Act 1952.  It enables the court to put questions to a witness on behalf of a party in the absence of legal representation, or to take steps itself to cause those questions to be put to enable effective examination of the witness.  It cannot, on any plain reading, be interpreted as giving the court power to order funding of legal representation for a party.

43. Secondly, on a plain and natural interpretation of the language of section 31G(6), it is predicated on the party not being represented. If the party were to become legally represented, section 31G(6) would fall away.

44. Thirdly, the way in which “cause to be put” has historically been applied in practice is that the justices’ clerks in the magistrates’ courts could be asked to put questions to a witness on behalf of a party, where it was not possible for the party themselves to do so. Following the reorganisation of the Family Court, the justices’ clerks are now available to perform this function in any part of the Family Court and not only when magistrates are hearing the matter.

45. It follows that I respectfully disagree with what the President said at para 79 of his judgment in Q v Q. It would seem that he did not have the benefit of the detailed submissions which have been made to this court.

46. I conclude, therefore, that the judge had no power to make the order that he made and I would allow the appeal on the first ground. It is not therefore necessary to deal with the other grounds of appeal.  But I should say in relation to the second ground that I did not understand it to be contended by anyone that the imposition of a means test is of itself contrary to the Convention (it plainly is not).  I propose to say nothing on the question whether the judge was wrong to conclude that the father could not afford to pay for his legal representation (the third ground).  We heard a good deal of argument on the fourth ground of appeal, viz that, unless the judge’s order were to stand, there would be a violation of the article 6 rights of the father and the article 6 and 8 rights of K and H.  In deference to counsel’s submissions and in view of the importance of the issues raised, I propose to say something about this ground of appeal.

Dyson MR therefore went on to consider the Convention rights issues. But he concluded that, in most cases questioning by the Judge or by a Justice’s Clerk (who can be made available even in a case not heard by Magistrates) would be sufficient and not a breach of Article 6 or 8 – and that it would be sufficient in this case. He conceded that in some very complex and serious cases that would not be appropriate, and such a case might amount to a breach. He called for there to be a statutory scheme created to allow for the appointment of a legal representative in such cases.

Comment

This judgment firmly puts to rest the idea, proposed by Munby P and first implemented by HHJ Bellamy, that cuts to legal aid can be circumvented in appropriate cases by finding funds from some other source. The courts simply don’t have the power to require public funds to be spent in that way when there is a comprehensive statutory scheme which provides for cases which can – and cannot – be funded. That might, in some cases, result in a breach of Article 6 or 8. A fall-back statutory scheme in such cases would be useful – and the interveners in this case have called for one to be enacted. But it needs to be a statutory scheme, and it would be surprising if there is significant political appetite for creating what would amount to a second legal aid scheme to fill (some of) the gaps left by cuts to the first.

The government is likely to argue that the exceptional funding scheme is there to cater for cases where a lack of funding would breach Article 6 or 8. It is worth noting that the father in K & H was not in any event a victim of the LASPO cuts – he was financially ineligible, and so would never have got legal aid, even if LASPO had never been enacted. So he could not have got exceptional funding, which is means tested. As Dyson MR pointed out, the ECtHR has said that the imposition of a means test is not incompatible with Article 6.

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Legal aid for contempt in the County Court

In Brown v London Borough of Haringey [2015] EWCA Civ 483 the Court of Appeal considered the availability of legal aid for contempt proceedings in the County Court. It was considering an appeal against the committal for contempt of an elderly man who was found to have breached anti-social behaviour injunctions. In the County Court, he was unrepresented following the failure of his solicitor’s efforts to obtain legal aid.

The solicitor had applied both to the LAA, which said it was a criminal matter and to apply to the Court; and to the Magistrates Court that dealt with legal aid applications in the local area, which said it was a civil matter and to apply to the LAA.

Giving judgment, McCombe LJ analysed what he said was “disgracefully complex” legal aid legislation. The relevant analysis is set out at paras 26 to 37. McCombe LJ concluded that this was indeed a criminal matter (that is, that it fell within the criminal legal aid scheme and the solicitor needed a criminal contract). He approved the judgment of Blake J in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Council v Bunning and anor [2013] EWHC 3390 (QB).

In cases in the Crown Court, High Court and Court of Appeal, the Court has the power to grant legal aid itself (which the Court of Appeal did, to allow Mr Brown’s representatives to be funded). But the County Court has no equivalent power. These are criminal applications which have to be made by criminal practitioners using criminal application forms. See also our posts on funding for new style anti-social behaviour injunctions here and here – this work can also be done by civil practitioners if the LAA is willing to grant an Individual Case Contract.

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Michael Gove appointed new Lord Chancellor

In the post-election reshuffle Chris Grayling has moved on from the MoJ. The new Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor is Michael Gove, the former education secretary and chief whip.

The Spectator suggests that his two key focuses will be implementing Conservative promises to replace the Human Rights Act, and to reduce both crime and the prison population. The Guardian reports that his brief will focus on “prisons, sentencing and criminal justice”. It isn’t known what views, if any, he has on legal aid, nor yet which justice minister will take specific responsibility for it in the new government.

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