Family practitioners will be aware of a difficulty with the application of the statutory charge in some cases. Failings by a local authority towards have led to damages being sought on behalf of the child under the Human Rights Act.However, where this is done within the care proceedings it meant the damages would be swallowed up by the statutory charge which recovered the cost of the care proceedings. A line of cases confirmed the proper approach was to bring the damages claim separately to the care proceedings. Although this would mean a separate legal aid certificate, there was still an issue around the extent to which these were connected proceeding within s25 LASPO, meaning the statutory charge would still bite to recover the costs of the care proceedings. See Chapter 5 of the Handbook for more.This issue has come to court again in the recent case of Northamptonshire County Council & Anor v The Lord Chancellor (via the ire County Legal Aid Agency)  EWHC 1628 (Fam). Francis J noted that the LAA has now agreed to publish an updated statement of its position in these cases. Although it has not yet done so, the LAA’s position statement in this case is attached to the judgment and can be viewed here. It says
[If] HRA damages are obtained outside of the care or other family law proceedings (e.g. within separate civil proceedings, or by means of a settlement outside of the care or other family law proceedings), only the legal aid expenditure incurred in respect of pursuing an HRA claim will be treated by the LAA as provided in connection with it. If the LAA is asked to give an early indication as to whether the statutory charge will apply to any HRA damages in these circumstances, it will request undertakings from the provider and counsel in the care proceedings that they will not make a claim for costs in respect of any HRA work carried out as part of the care or other family law proceedings. Once the undertakings have been received, the LAA will be able to confirm that the statutory charge will not extend to the legally aided care costs. Note that, unless a certificate or amendment to a certificate specifically authorising an HRA claim has been granted, there could be no valid claim for such costs in any event.
For the avoidance of doubt, legal aid expenditure in relation to the HRA claim will form a statutory charge in respect of any damages or costs recovered in the settlement of that claim, to the extent that a claim is made for costs from the LAA.
The LAA now clearly accepts that – provided proceedings are separate – the HRA damages will not be used via the statutory charge to recover the costs of the care proceedings. However any legal aid costs in the HRA claim will. Such cases will often be unsuitable for a CFA and the costs protection afforded by a legal aid certificate will be needed. Even if costs are awarded in the event of a successful claim they will not cover the legal aid only costs and perhaps not part of the substantive work. This leaves practitioners with the invidious choice of not claiming perhaps significant costs, or seeing them recouped from their child client’s damages. However this position seems as far as the law can go in these situations. Whether it is just for the state to recover costs from damages awarded to a child client for HRA breaches by the state is essentially a political and policy question, and perhaps one the forthcoming LASPO review may address.
UPDATE 11 July: The LAA has now published the statement on its guidance page here
Following discussion with representative bodies, the LAA has amended the crime contract in respect of the 14 hour rule for duty solicitors. The amendments come into force on 23 July. With effect from that date the scope of what can be included in the 14 hour rule has been widened to include
- Work under the contract – such as police station and Magistrates Court work
- LGFS and AGFS work
- Work under the armed forces legal aid scheme
- Work under a court appointment for cross-examination of witnesses
- Privately funded criminal defence work which would come under one of the above headings but for the client being ineligible for legal aid or otherwise electing to pay privately
Where you rely on private work you will need to have consent from your client for the LAA to check what work was done for the purposes of monitoring compliance with the rule. If consent is not given or not sought you cannot rely on this work. This is a positive change which goes some way to broaden the scope of the 14 hour rule. Many practitioners and representative bodies welcomed the principle of ensuring that duty work is only done by those genuinely engaged in the work for the firm benefitting from it. However the narrow drafting of the rule, and some inconsistencies of approach by contract managers, has caused some difficulty in practice. However, while it broadens the scope of what can be counted towards the 14 hours, the change does not affect how the 14 hours are measured. It continues to require an average of at least 14 hours work per week on qualifying work, measured on a rolling monthly basis. Practitioners have expressed concern about the impact of this rule, and its potential discriminatory effect, on those with different working patterns – such as carers, and parents who do not work during school holidays.
As we reported here, the High Court quashed the LAA’s decision to re-configure the boundaries of court duty schemes and tender based on the larger scheme areas. It found the basis for the plan to be so lacking in evidence as to render the decision irrational. As a result the LAA has now announced that it has cancelled the tender. Any bidders previously notified of a successful outcome will not now be awarded a contract. Although the announcement does not set out next steps, we understand the LAA has now written to existing providers offering a one year extension to 30 September 2019. The work will be based on the 2013 contract specification, not the new 2018 specification.The purpose of the one year extension is said to be
to enable a review of relevant policy and to provide the time needed to prepare and run a new procurement exercise for these services.
Existing providers who wish to continue will be required to have a 2018 contract in housing and debt. It is not clear what provision the LAA has put in place where the existing contract holder has not bid for a 2018 contract, which would mean they cannot continue and therefore there is no provider to continue the existing scheme until September 2019.
The High Court has quashed the LAA’s tender for housing court duty possession schemes in R (Law Centres Federation Limited) v Lord Chancellor  EWHC 1588 (Admin). The Law Centres Federation argued that the decision to reduce the number of contracts available by increasing the size of scheme areas to cover multiple courts was irrational and in breach of the public sector equality duty.
Andrews J was heavily critical of the LAA and MoJ’s approach to decision making, in particular the gathering of evidence. She found that a series of questionable assumptions without data had been made, and the position of the representative bodies mis-represented. Submissions to ministers were “woefully inadequate” and necessary enquires had not been carried out. As a result, the minister making the decision was misled and not properly briefed, and consequently reached a decision no minister, properly briefed and in possession of all the facts, could reasonably have reached.
It is not yet known whether the Lord Chancellor will appeal or what action the LAA will take to ensure schemes can operate beyond September 2018 now that the tender process awarding new contracts has been quashed, with existing providers already given notice of termination. We will report developments.