Judge voices concern as parents at centre of complex care case forced to represent themselves
A Deputy High Court judge has voiced concern after being told how a couple had to represent themselves in a complex case centred on the care of their teenage son because they were £36 over a legal aid limit.
Judge Richard Todd said the couple, who lost a fight with a London council, had been “dispossessed” of legal representation by “virtue of being neither poor nor rich enough”.
The judge said the couple had been at a “real disadvantage” when arguing with publicly funded lawyers representing the council.
He also said he thought a hearing had taken twice as long as it would have done had the couple been represented by lawyers.
Judge Todd has aired his thoughts in a written case outline, after making rulings in favour of social services bosses Greenwich Council, following a recent private hearing in the Family Division of the High Court in London.
He said the teenager, who had “complex” health needs and learning difficulties, could not be identified in media reports of the case.
Judge Todd said the council had, rightly, “retained very senior counsel” at public expense.
A lawyer representing a guardian for the teenager had also been publicly funded.
But, the judge added: ““By contrast, the parents had their legal aid removed … for being £36 over one of the limits.”
He said: “In a complex case such as this, legal representation is more than just desirable, it can represent the difference between a fair hearing and an unfair one.”
Judge Todd said the denial of legal aid was a “false economy”.
“The evidence in this case proceeded over four days,” he said.
“This was primarily due to the parents’ labouring over difficult legal constructs and asking very wordy questions.
“Had they been represented, then I have no doubt this case would have concluded within two days.
“That would have been a huge saving to the public purse.”
He went on: “There is a widely held suspicion that legal aid has been so cut back over the past few decades because it is ‘low hanging fruit’.
“The beneficiaries of legal aid tended to be the ‘voiceless’ ones; people, like these parents, who are conscientious, hard-working and in employment, but not that well paid. They have become the dispossessed.
“Dispossessed of legal representation, by virtue of being neither poor nor rich enough.
“Legal aid was originally one of the pillars of the welfare state.
“But for these people that prop is removed.”
He said the “net result” was that the couple had been at a “real disadvantage” against council bosses who were “publicly funded”.
Judge Todd said the teenager had gone into council care two years ago and was in a “residential unit”.
Another judge had been told that the boy had a history of “challenging behaviour” and was beyond his parents’ control.
The parents wanted him to return home but failed to persuade Judge Todd to discharge a care order.
Judge Todd also said council bosses could lawfully restrict the boy’s liberty if necessary and extended a deprivation of liberty order made at an earlier stage of the litigation.
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