Legal Aid – Exceptional Cases Funding – recent developments
Following enactment of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012,(LASPO) the scope of civil legal aid was significantly reduced. Civil legal services could only be funded under the new legal aid scheme which fell within statutorily prescribed classes of case. (See LASPO section 9 and schedule 1).
However, section 10 of the Act did provide that, in exceptional circumstances, civil legal services could be provided where
(a) … it is necessary to make the services available to the individual … because failure to do so would be a breach of –
(i) the individual’s Convention rights (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998), or
(ii) any rights of the individual to the provision of legal services that are enforceable EU rights, or
(b) … it is appropriate to do so, in the particular circumstances of the case, having regard to any risk that failure to do so would be such a breach.
The Director of Case Work has the statutory responsibility for making such decisions. In reality, the decisions are taken by case workers working within the Legal Aid Agency.
In coming to their decisions, case workers are required to take into account Guidance issued by the Lord Chancellor. (LASPO section 4.)
The Lord Chancellor was clearly anxious that, unless he was careful, the existence of exceptional funding might create a means for getting round the limitations he sought to impose on the Legal Aid scheme, which would have the effect of undermining the Government’s desire to reduce public expenditure on legal aid. Thus, in his guidance on exceptional case funding, which was published in 2013, it was stressed that, in reaching their decisions, case workers should understand that this funding ‘is to be used for rare cases’ only; ‘limited resources’ should be focussed ‘on the highest priority cases’. In relation to cases that might involve breach of Article 6 of the ECHR (right to a fair trial) the guidance stated: The overarching question to consider is whether the withholding of legal aid would make the assertion of the claim practically impossible or lead to an obvious unfairness in proceedings. This is a very high threshold” (original emphasis).
Shortly before Christmas 2014, the Court of Appeal handed down its decision in the case of Gudanaviciene . The case actually involved 6 cases which had been brought together because they raised in essence the same question – was the Lord Chancellor’s Guidance lawful? It was argued, in effect, that the terms in which the guidance had been drafted imposed too high a threshold on applicants for exceptional funding, and that therefore the guidance went beyond the words of the Act, and were in consequence unlawful.
The Court of Appeal agreed with this argument. In the course of a long judgement, they held, in part, that
The fact that section 10 is headed “exceptional cases” and that it provides for an “exceptional case determination” says nothing about whether there are likely to be few or many such determinations. Exceptionality is not a test. The criteria for deciding whether an ECF determination should or may be made are set out in section 10(3) by reference to the requirements of the Convention and the Charter. In our view, there is nothing in the language of section 10(3) to suggest that exceptional case determinations will only rarely be made.
They therefore concluded that the Lord Chancellor’s Guidance was unlawful.
The question for Government was: how to respond to this judgement? There were two options: take a further appeal to the Supreme Court; or reissue the guidance and hope that the revised guidance would comply with the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of LASPO.
In the event, the Government decided on the latter course. On 9th June 2015, the Lord Chancellor published revised guidance on how exceptional case funding decisions are to be made in future. While those who drafted the revised guidance are still concerned that the provision of exceptional case funding should be kept under controi, the ‘tone’ of the document seems to have softened. Indeed the emphasis, for case workers taking decisions on these matters is whether – as the Act says, the provision of such funding is necessary.
The recent election of the new Conservative Government has clearly scotched any lingering hopes in the legal profession that there would be any major softening of policy on civil legal aid. But the revised guidance on exceptional case funding for civil legal services does represent a change in emphasis which practitioners must note and apply.
To read the judgement of the Court of Appeal in the Gudanaviciene case go to https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/gudanavicience-ors-v-dir-of-legal-aid.pdf
To read the revised guidance on emergency case funding (non-inquest) go to https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/legal-aid-exceptional-case-funding-form-and-guidance. This page also gives a link to the guidance relating to inquest cases.