As we noted last week, the High Court has given judgment in the challenge to the exceptional funding scheme, IS v The Director of Legal Aid Casework & Anor  EWHC 1965 (Admin).
The administration of the scheme
In a lengthy, detailed and comprehensive judgment, Collins J noted a series of problems with the scheme as it has been implemented by the LAA:
- The crucial test for whether exceptional funding should be granted, as laid down by the Court of Appeal in Gudanaviciene, is “whether an unrepresented litigant is able to present his case effectively and without obvious unfairness” (para 24);
- Even after Gudanaviciene, the success rate for applications is very low (para 29);
- The forms are unnecessarily complex, repetitious and do not reflect the right test for whether funding should be granted (para 56, para 80);
- The forms require legal assistance to complete. The LAA should make available a form that can be filled in by an unrepresented applicant (para 54);
- Consideration should be given to making Legal Help available for solicitors to make initial enquiries, decide whether an application is justified, and make it (para 57);
- The revised Lord Chancellor’s Guidance, issued in response to Gudanaviciene, still does not give effect to it and places too many restrictions on when funding should be granted (paras 66 to 71);
- “The belief that because courts and tribunals have to deal with litigants in person legal representation can be refused is one which must be very carefully applied. It should only be used to refuse an application if the issues are truly relatively straightforward” (para 71);
- In cases where “a judge seized of the material proceedings has requested” representation “because otherwise a fair hearing will not take place… it is difficult to see that save in a rare case to fail to comply with the judge’s request [to grant exceptional funding] would be justified. It is not generally appropriate for a caseworker who is not apprised of the full circumstances to second guess the judge’s view. There must be a very good reason indeed for such a refusal.” (para 72);
- The LAA’s urgent applications procedure is not satisfactory and the absence of a mechanism for issuing an emergency certificate is unreasonable (para 78);
- The scheme “is not, as it is operated, meeting its need to ensure that an unrepresented litigant can present his or her case effectively and without obvious unfairness. That extends to the need to ensure that he or she has access to assistance which may be needed, as in IS’s case, to make representations to the relevant authority to achieve a particular purpose. The same need exists as for hearings before a court or tribunal.” (para 79);
- “The system is defective in failing to provide for a right of appeal to a judicial person against a refusal where the result would be an infringement of the very essence of the right of access to a court.” (para 93)
A particularly useful passage for family lawyers runs through an analysis of recent cases in which the family courts have drawn attention to the difficulty of deciding cases without legal aid, and concludes:
- It is difficult to imagine a family case, particularly when there are contested issues about children, in which there would not be an interference with the Article 8 rights of either parent or the children themselves. Thus unless the party seeking legal aid could albeit unrepresented present his or her case effectively and without obvious unfairness, a grant of legal aid would be required. That does not mean that every case will require it: some may be sufficiently simple for the unrepresented party to deal with. Obviously if there is a lack of capacity even such cases may require legal aid. That issue I will have to consider in further detail later. But I am bound to say that I believe that only in rare cases, subject to means and merits if properly applied, should legal aid be denied in such cases. As it is now applied, the scheme is clearly wholly deficient in that it does not enable the family courts to be satisfied that they can do justice and give a fair hearing to an unrepresented party. While the problem may perhaps be less acute in other civil cases, I have no doubt that the difficulties I have referred to in family cases apply.
After a discussion of relevant caselaw, particularly in the ECtHR, Collins J concluded:
- There are in my view two difficulties in the way the merits test has been applied. First, the requirement that in all cases there must be a even or greater than even chance of success is unreasonable. Secondly, the manner in which the LAA has assessed the prospects of success has been erroneous. The whole point of representation is that it will produce the chance of success which without representation will not exist. If a case involves issues of fact which will depending on the court’s findings determine the outcome, it must be obvious that the ability to challenge apparently unfavourable material and to cross examine adverse witnesses effectively may turn the case in a party’s favour. Accordingly, what has to be assessed is not what the present material when untested may indicate but whether if competent cross examination or legal submissions are made the result may be favourable. It is not for the LAA to carry out the exercise which the court will carry out, in effect prejudging the very issue which will be determined by the court. I recognise that there will be cases which it will be possible to say that whatever may be achieved by competent representation the result is likely to be unfavourable. The lengthy and detailed refusals which have been exhibited by the various witnesses have tended to carry out what I regard as the impermissible approach. The removal of the borderline cases from those that can succeed on merits grounds seems to me to be unreasonable.
- Mr Chamberlain has relied on the observation of the court in R(G) that “the cases demonstrate that Article 6.1 does not require civil legal aid in most or even many cases. It all depends on the circumstances”. That may be true of the cases in which a breach of Article 6(1) or the procedural requirements of Article 8 were considered. But I do not think the court was making a judgment which would apply to all applications. As was said, the circumstances of each case will be determinative and there can in my view be no doubt that the way in which merits have been approached has been flawed.
This passage is particularly significant because it criticises the way that the LAA applies the merits tests, but also the tests themselves, which are set out in regulations. The finding about prospects of success goes to the heart of the way that the merits tests for all types of funding, including those that are in scope, are set out in regulations and implemented. If this part of the judgment survives an appeal, it is likely to have a significant impact on the way funding is assessed in all cases, not just those which are out of scope and so covered by the ECF regime.