The High Court has given judgment in the case of Duncan Lewis (Solicitors) Ltd, R (On the Application Of) v The Lord Chancellor  EWHC 2498 (Admin). The case was about acceptable evidence of means for controlled work. Duncan Lewis granted Legal Help to a minor on an immigration matter, accepting a letter from the local authority confirming support under s17 Children Act 1989 as evidence of means. The most recent letter was more than six months old, and didn’t contain any figures. There were older letters as well.
The case went over the escape fee threshold and was sent to the LAA for assessment. The LAA nil assessed it for lack of evidence of means. This was because the letter did not state the amounts received during the computation period. Duncan Lewis appealed to the independent adjudicator, who rejected the appeal because of a discrepancy between the figures cited on the Legal Help form and on an earlier letter.
Cranston J quashed the independent adjudicator’s decision. He found that the IA had asked the wrong question – although he correctly identified an error in the figures, that wasn’t what he was required to consider. Para 12.2 of Part 2E of the Funding Code Guidance said that acceptable evidence of means was that which was reasonably sufficient to establish income in the computation period. Where that wasn’t available, evidence outside the computation period could be accepted where it was reasonable to do so. That was what the IA had to consider – was Duncan Lewis correct to accept the evidence as reasonably sufficient. Duncan Lewis knew that the client was in receipt of s17 support, and knew from its wide experience of immigration cases that s17 support would not take a client over the income threshold – so it was reasonably sufficient evidence of eligibility.
Although Cranston J said that he was quashing the decision in the “special circumstances” of the case, it is a useful reminder of the wider principle that the LAA (and independent adjudicators) must address the tests set out in the contract and guidance – that this was an Access to Justice Act case doesn’t affect that. In many cases, the role of an assessment or audit is not to second guess or substitute the judgement of the solicitor, but to assess whether he or she acted reasonably. A similar principle is to be found in Point of Principle CLA 56, which says that an exercise of devolved powers (now delegated functions) should only be overturned where the decision was manifestly unreasonable.