Legal aid in welfare benefits cases

Our thanks to Nick Whittingham for drawing to our attention a case involving Kirklees Law Centre, which was refused legal aid to appear at an oral hearing of the Upper Tribunal in a welfare benefits case. It continued to represent the appellant pro bono, as did counsel Tom Royston. The decision is reported at JC v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (ESA) (Employment and support allowance : Post 28.3.11. WCA activity 16: coping with social engagement) [2014] UKUT 352 (AAC)

In a three judge decision – the panel including Charles J, the Upper Tribunal president and a First Tier Tribunal president – the Tribunal regretted the refusal of legal aid and set out a series of factors it invited the LAA to take into account when considering future applications (see para 63):

More generally we take this opportunity to invite the Legal Aid Agency in other cases where a three judge panel of the Upper Tribunal (AAC) has been convened to hear an appeal to take account of  the following:

i)                 Paragraph 3(a) of the Senior President’s Practice Direction relating to the composition of that tribunal and thus the reasons why the Senior President or the Chamber President can direct a three judge panel.  They are that: “… the matter involves a question of law of special difficulty or an important point of principle or practice, or that it is otherwise appropriate …” for there to be a three judge panel.

ii)                These directions are not made lightly.  When they are the legal issues involved will be of that nature, the appeals will involve individuals and the Secretary of State and decision making will be greatly assisted by written and oral argument.

iii)               The role of the Upper Tribunal (AAC) in setting precedent and thus consistency of decision making by First-tier Tribunals in respect of claims for benefits, and thus the wide impact of its decisions on cases heard by First-tier Tribunals.

iv)               The great advantage of resolving differences between decisions of single Upper Tribunal judges by a decision of a three judge panel.  This is based on the long standing practice that three judge panel decisions will be followed by both the Upper Tribunal and the First-tier Tribunal.  That practice avoids the need for such differences between single judges to be determined by the Court of Appeal and so greatly reduces the number of appeals to that court.

v)                The fact that the above points indicate that the grant of legal aid in cases to be heard by a three judge panel is likely to be of great assistance to the Upper Tribunal in resolving difficult and important issues of law that, subject to further appeal to the Court of Appeal, will create precedent and thereby assist in the correct determination of a large number of other cases by the Department and First-tier Tribunals.

2 Comments

Filed under LASPO, Social welfare

2 responses to “Legal aid in welfare benefits cases

  1. It seems to me that legal aid is being squeezed ever more strictly as a cost saving exercise, but is it the right decision morally?

  2. Pingback: Legal aid in mental health cases | Legal Aid Handbook

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