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Date posted: 22 May 2015
We read with interest, the judgement of the Court of Appeal in Ronald Brown v London Borough of Haringey.
Mr Brown is an 80 year old man, suffering from a number of age related health concerns. The local authority evicted Mr Brown for non-payment of rent and for nuisance and annoyance to neighbours. In the course of the proceedings, the County Court granted injunctions restraining Mr Brown and his partner from committing various acts of nuisance and anti-social behaviour. Following the eviction, Mr Brown’s anti-social behaviour continued in the locality and this led to committal proceedings.
Mr Brown was unable to get legal aid in the committal proceedings in the County Court and ended up being committed to prison for a total of 18 months for contempt of court in respect of breaches of injunctions.
He was committed in his absence, having gone to hospital on the second day of the committal proceedings.
The Court of Appeal noted that Mr Brown had “displayed from time to time a tendency to extreme truculence”.
The committal to prison however was not safe because Mr Brown did not have legal representation, he was not present when he was deprived of his liberty and there was no mitigation. The committal was quashed. Mr Brown was apparently in prison between 27th November 2014 and the handing down of the judgement of the Court of Appeal which we understand was 6th May 2015. It will be interesting to see if he pursues a claim for damages for unlawful detention.
In this judgement the Court of Appeal exposes the extreme difficulty (actually an impossibility) in obtaining legal aid for committal proceedings in the County Court.
Lord Justice McCombe states:
“The question of availability of legal aid in such proceedings needs to be clear to lawyer and layman alike. It is not. The legislation is disgracefully complex”.
McCombe LJ goes on to say:
“The appellant’s entitlement to legal aid in this matter was never properly understood and determined by the legal aid authorities and in consequence the proceedings in the court below went wrong”.
McCombe LJ describes a history of Mr Brown’s solicitors being sent “from pillar to post” in the weeks before the hearing by the civil and criminal legal aid authorities respectively and “as a result whatever right he might have had to public funding was lost for all practical purposes” (paragraph 39 of the judgement).
This judgement is of particular interest to Wilson Solicitors. It is certainly our experience that dealing with the complexities of legal aid applications in general is extremely bureaucratic, time consuming and frustrating.
Legal aid generally is administered through primary legislation, regulations, guidance, specifications, terms of contracts, FAQ’s and ad hoc explanatory emails.
Even if a client is entitled to legal aid for one of the few areas that remain in scope after April 2013, there is a complete lack of common sense at the Legal Aid Agency in connection with assessing financial eligibility. For example, we have had destitute homeless clients whose only means of support is Red Cross parcels, refused eligibility because the value of the Red Cross parcel has not been quantified! It is maddening!
Even if legal aid is obtained, the procedure for billing the work is obscure, totally over complicated and continually changing with a vast array of different codes and descriptions being deployed by the Legal Aid Agency, almost at whim. There are trap doors scattered along the way and actually getting paid can feel like a lottery.
Access to exceptional funding, which was designed to provide legal aid to vulnerable clients in need following the restrictions introduced in April 2013, is virtually non-existent. The excessive amount of information, documentation and material that is required in support of an exceptional funding application is, in itself a massive deterrent.
We welcome the recommendations of the Court of Appeal in the post-script to the judgement.
It is to be hoped that addressing the complexities relating to legal aid for committal proceedings might encourage the legal aid agency to generally streamline the administration of the legal aid system.
The crisis in legal aid is not just low rates of pay but very much also the inordinate amount of bureaucracy that has been inflicted on legal aid providers such as this firm.
Welcome to our world.