Unseen Benefit of Public Funding
21 April 2015 by Julia Brewer
A Family Court judge has published details of a reserved judgement in relation to a care case, stressing the importance of lawyers within family court proceedings. Her Honour Judge Hammerton stated that the absence of legal aid funding for the father in this particular case left him at a disadvantage.
The case concerned an application to discharge a care order made by the local authority and granted in May 2014. The application for the care order related to a 10 year old boy identified in the judgment as ‘JC’ following a fire in the family home. ‘JC’ was alone in the house with another child when the fire started. The local authority took JC into police protection and then placed him in foster care. Subsequently, for various reasons, the local authority changed its position and sought permission to withdraw its application. Since September 2014, the application for the discharge of the care order was made by the father and by the child, who was separately represented.
The father had been refused public funding by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) because the proceedings were for a discharge of a care order. In light of this, the father was not entitled to funding without means or merit testing, and his financial position placed him outside legal aid eligibility. As a result of the inability of the father to get legal aid, he had been unrepresented. Throughout proceedings, it was reported that he had behaved in an aggressive and intimidating manner towards members of the local authority.
As a result of the father representing himself, every hearing took longer than it should have done, using up the court’s precious time and resources. The final hearing in the matter was listed for three days to accommodate the fact that the father would be unrepresented. However, the hearing was concluded within half a day due to, according to the judge, the father being represented by a lawyer acting pro bono.
Judge Hammerton stated ‘when, as here, the subject matter is grave and emotive, the absence of representation is particularly inappropriate and unfair.’
‘The advantage of legal representation is not confined to the presentation of the case. In family proceedings, there is an additional advantage that the advocate can protect the client from himself. Timely advice will prevent the party from behaving in a way that he might regret.’
The care order was discharged in March 2015 after the application was subsequently supported by the local authority and the guardian.