This month’s Legal Action magazine reports on two instances of the Legal Aid Agency getting things spectacularly wrong as a result of its staff not knowing what they were doing.
The first concerned the way in which the Legal Aid Agency mismanaged the provision of Legal Aid to South West London Law Centres in representing Wendy Lomax in challenging the unlawful failure of Gosport BC to recognise that she was entitled to be treated as homeless for the purposes Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996. The second was the decision to cut the number of supplies able to work on the Duty Solicitor service for housing at the County Courts which led to the Legal Aid Agency losing a Judicial Review. I only have space here to talk about the first case. I would like to come back to the Duty Rota issue another time.
The Court of Appeal Judgment in the Lomax case has been widely reported as a very important decision on the issue of when somebody is entitled to be treated as homeless because their home is not reasonable for them to continue to occupy. Here is a link to the Nearly Legal post on the case. As a result of errors on the part of the Legal Aid Agency the case was nearly prevented from reaching the Court of Appeal.
When the Law Centre sought to appeal against what proved to be an incorrect County Court decision in Ms Lomax’s case the application to amend the Legal Funding Certificate was dealt with so badly by the Legal Aid Agency that the Law Centre had to take the risk of covering the costs of lodging the application to request permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal so as to ensure that Ms Lomax did not miss the 21 day time limit for doing so. The Legal Aid Agency errors in that case included:-
- Wrongly refusing the application because permission to appeal had not been applied for in the County Court.
- Wrongly refusing to consider the amendment without a transcript of the judgment. The Law Centre did not have the funding in place (because the Legal Funding Certificate had not been amended) to pay for the transcript and did not have time to apply for it.
- Wrongly deciding that Ms Lomax did not have a good prospect of success. A specialist barrister had advised that she did have a good prospect. This was simply ignored until the Law Centre were able to appeal to an independent decision maker. By then though the 21 day time limit for appealing had expired. Had the Law Centre not taken the risk of issuing the appeal without waiting for the Legal Aid Agency to amend the Legal Funding Certificate Ms Lomax might not have been able to pursue her appeal.
These errors arose against a background of a member of the public living in Dorset having to instruct a solicitor based in London due to the lack of local solicitors who could deal with the case. The Legal Aid Agency cannot be blamed for the cuts in Legal Aid which are the primary cause of the shortage of available specialist solicitors but they are in my opinion responsible for making things worse by operating in a hostile and ill informed manner. This approach leaves the Legal Aid Agency unable to recognise the errors which they make and to improve the service which they provide.
Ms Lomax’s solicitor is quoted as rightly stating that the Legal Aid Agency’s erroneous understanding of procedure was tantamount to an obstruction to the administration of justice. I would go further and say that the problem is not simply an erroneous understanding. It stems a failure by the Legal Aid Agency to adequately manage their work. Someone who knew what they were doing should have spotted what was going wrong but they didn't
The scale of the problem at the Legal Aid Agency can be seen from their response to this story which is also quoted in the Legal Action article. I set it out here in full.
“Legal Aid is available right across the country and it is imperative that those entitled have sufficient access regardless of where they live. That is precisely why reviews take place and we rapidly address any issues which arise in specific cases.”
This obvious nonsense is attributed to the anonymous Legal Aid Agency spokesperson who we usually find putting in an appearance at the end of articles like this reporting Legal Aid Agency failings. The response is nonsense because Legal Aid is not available right across the country. There are large areas such as where Ms Lomax lived where there are no solicitors available to take on a case like hers. It is of course imperative that those entitled to Legal Aid have access but the whole point here is that Ms Lomax did not have access at a critical point in her case because staff at the Legal Aid Agency wrongly refused her Legal Aid funding which she was entitled to. It is not clear from the quote whether the Legal Aid Agency have actually carried out a review of what took place in this particular case. If they did they have kept the outcome of the review and the way in which they have addressed the issues arising to themselves. The fact that the Legal Aid Agency can come up with such an inappropriate response can only mean that problems of this kind are likely to continue.
What should happen in a case like this is that a named official from the Legal Aid Agency should publicly apologise for the service provided, and explain how the errors were made. They should outline what steps will be taken to prevent errors of this kind happening again and identify who will be responsible for ensuring that those steps are taken. Recognising and taking ownership of errors is a first step towards ensuring that they are not repeated.