Legal aid statutory charge Part 3: avoidance and evasion

Legal aid advice: statutory charge and separate proceedings

 

So far, on the subject of legal aid and the legal aid statutory charge, this series has looked at (1) HRA damages and legal aid: a Pyrrhic exercise; and (2) legal aid statutory charge and care proceedings. The next question is: what are the duties of the solicitor and of barristers towards the legal aid fund? And, especially, is there any question of lawyers abusing the fund if they take separate proceedings to recover Human Rights Act 1998 (‘HRA’) damages and the charge cannot thereby operate on those damages?

 

A legal aid lawyer’s job is not unlike that of a tax specialist accountant. It is legitimate for an accountant to help clients to minimise their tax: that is tax avoidance. Tax evasion (eg declaring a false income), by contrast, is illegal. It is the same for lawyers. Lawyers may not, as Lord Denning MR put it in Manley v Law Society [1981] 1 WLR 335, CA, ‘manipulate the destination [of damages or property] so as to avoid the statutory charge’ (348E). His successor Lord Donaldson MR in Watkinson v Legal Aid Board [1991] 1 WLR 419, [1991] 2 FLR 26, CA told solicitors that they should not apply for a certificate to be amended if they could equally well apply for a fresh certificate, and thereby avoid the charge for their clients. The question here is what is manipulation (ie Manley evasion), and what legitimate (ie Watkinson good practice).

 

Duty to the legal aid fund; duty to the Treasury

 

So it is with tax advice: it is not for the accountant to arrange for a client to pay as much tax as possible, any more than a legal aid lawyer must cause his/her client needlessly to forego money for the benefit of the legal aid fund; but neither accountant nor lawyer can advise their client illegally to evade payment where it is legitimately due to the Treasury.

 

Manley was followed by Clark v Clark (No 2) [1991] 1 FLR 179, where Booth J commented on the duty of a solicitor to act independently of counsel; and in so doing she stressed the three duties of a legal aid lawyer: to the court, to the client and to the legal aid fund:

 

As a general rule, a solicitor is entitled to rely upon the advice of counsel properly instructed, and in doing so he will be absolved from a personal liability for the costs of his actions. But, as May LJ observed in Davy-Chiesman v Davy-Chiesman [1984] Fam. 48 at p.64, this does not operate so as to give the solicitor an immunity in every case. He expressed it thus:

‘A solicitor is highly trained and rightly expected to be experienced in his particular legal fields. He is under a duty at all times to exercise that degree of care, to both client and the court, that can be expected of a reasonably prudent solicitor. He is not entitled to rely blindly and with no mind of his own on counsel’s views.’

In my judgment, those words apply as much to the duty of care owed by a solicitor to the … the Legal Aid Fund as to his client and to the court.

 

Manley v Law Society

 

In his inimitable prose, Lord Denning MR described the facts of the case:

 

Some 10 years ago the plaintiff invented an “echo sounder” by which large ships could tell if they were getting into shallow water. He got the Marconi International Marine Co. Ltd. interested in it. They agreed to exploit it if it came up to their requirements. But it failed to come up to their requirements. So they refused to go on with it. He alleged that they were guilty of a breach of contract. He claimed damages, huge damages, because of the loss of profit that he said he would have made. He also claimed to be reimbursed the money he had spent in developing his echo sounder. It came to £30,000 or more. He borrowed it from the banks and had charged his house as security for it.

The plaintiff had no money of his own to bring an action. So he applied for legal aid and got it…. He started an action in 1972 against Marconi.

 

Eventually the action was settled. Marconi was ready to pay £40,000 to get rid of it altogether, rather than incur the expense of fighting the case over 30 days against a legally aided plaintiff. The lawyers came to an arrangement where a fund in the joint names of Dr Manley’s and of Marconi’s solicitors would buy his debts and no money would go through the hands of Dr Manley. There was nothing on which the charge could bite and Dr Manley’s debts would be cleared. The Law Society was asked to approve this deal, but could not give a clear answer in the short time available. That was not the way to look at the compromise said Lord Denning MR (with whom Ormrod and O’Connor LJJ agreed):

 

… The court should always look for the truth of the transaction. It should not let itself be deceived by the stratagems of lawyers, or accountants. It should not allow them to pull the wool over its eyes. It should not allow them to dress up a transaction in clothes that do not belong to it.

Now the plain truth of this transaction is that the £40,000 was to be used to pay off the plaintiff’s debts. Kennedys were to supply particulars of his debts…. To my mind, once we pull aside the curtain of words, and the supposed rights, the truth is that this £40,000 was to be used to pay off the plaintiff’s debts at his request. It is, therefore, the subject of the statutory charge in favour of the legal aid fund. When money is paid to a party, or at his request to his creditors, it is plainly “recovered … for him” within Legal Aid Act 1974 9 (6).

 

The legal aid fund received what there was to cover the costs charged to it by Dr Manley’s lawyers (around £17,000) and he had what was left to pay his debts which had by then worked out at £48,000.

 

Solicitors must not ‘blindly’ follow counsel

 

In Clarke (No 2) (above) complex enforcement proceedings were issued by sequestration (the husband was in the US). This was on counsel’s advice. At a point in the proceedings counsel advised a course which would deprive the Legal Aid Board of capital, and therefore of fuel for the charge, where some cash was coming in from the husband’s assets. The Legal Aid Board was kept informed by the solicitor, but there came a time when he must rely on his own high training and experience (see quote from Davy-Chiesman above). Booth J explained this:

 

But the scheme to rewrite the sequestration order was of a very different nature. Once it had been mooted, it should have been very clear to the solicitor that the result it was intended to achieve conflicted directly with the duty which he himself owed to the Law Society and to the Legal Aid Fund…

 

The duty to the fund was personal to the solicitor; and s/he cannot ‘blindly’ follow counsel:

 

That duty constituted a personal obligation upon him, as the wife’s nominated solicitor, to protect the Legal Aid Fund. Whatever the advice of counsel, he remained responsible at all times to the Law Society. He was bound to report what it was proposed to do on her behalf, as indeed he did. In my judgment, his duty to the Law Society continued so long as he remained the nominated solicitor on the wife’s legal aid certificate and the certificate was not revoked or discharged. Where, as here, the action which was proposed, and which was followed, placed the solicitor as a legally assisted party’s solicitor in a position which directly conflicted with a duty of care he owed to the Legal Aid Fund, it would have required the clearest authorisation from the Law Society if he were to be absolved from that duty. No reliance upon counsel, however compelling the advice, could have absolved him from that duty.

 

The full passage from May LJ in Davy-Chiesman v Davy-Chiesman [1984] Fam 48 at 63-64, [1984] 1 WLR 291 (which was reported in the Times reports under the headline: ‘Solicitors should not blindly follow counsel’) is:

 

… a solicitor is in general entitled to rely on the advice of counsel properly instructed. However, this does not operate so as to give a solicitor an immunity in every such case. A solicitor is highly trained and rightly expected to be experienced in his particular legal fields. He is under a duty at all times to exercise that degree of care, to both client and the court, that can be expected of a reasonably prudent solicitor. He is not entitled to rely blindly and with no mind of his own on counsel’s views. Thus if, despite counsel’s advice that the circumstances postulated by regulation 68(1) [for reporting to the Law Society] do not obtain, he (the solicitor) remains of the view that they do, then he continues under a duty to report that view.

 

Separate legal aid certificates: the solicitor’s lien

 

So where does that leave the solicitor who sees that HRA damages, if claimed in care proceedings, will be merely swallowed up by the costs in the legally aided case? The ‘victory’ will be worthless, literally; and the only people to gain will be the lawyers for their efforts in transferring a few thousand pounds from a local authority to the legal aid fund.

 

The first thing is to imagine is that, as the solicitor, you are acting for the client on a non-legal aid (ie private) basis. This would not be in care proceedings, since legal aid is always available for that. However, imagine a case in which an unmarried client (Mary) is not financially eligible for legal aid, but instructs you to take domestic violence proceedings. After two court hearings in the Family Court the case is concluded and an order for costs assessed at £4,500 is made against her former cohabitant (Frank). Your costs are £5,000. You have a bill for £1,000 for contact discussions and advice over this, alongside a mediated contact agreement. Your total unpaid costs are £6,000.

 

Separately you act for Mary on a further retainer to claim a share in the couple’s former home. It is in Frank’s sole name, but he agreed that Mary should have a half share (a constructive trust). She estimates to be worth £80,000. She pays you £2,500 on account to cover £1,500 for the short-fall on the earlier work (if Frank pays) and £1,000 on account of constructive trust proceedings. You have to issue proceedings under Civil Procedure Rules 1998 in the county court claiming a declaration. Ultimately the case is settled on terms that Frank will pay Mary £60,000 and £8,000 towards her costs. For the civil proceedings your costs are now £12,500). You are owed £16,000 by Mary (you’ve been soft with her knowing she will receive the money from the house) of which £12,500 is owed by Frank.

 

You ask Mary for a charge on her agreed share, which share Frank has agreed to express as a charge on his house till he pays; or she can enforce. You want a charge on her charge. She is evasive about signing a charge. Solicitors Act 1974 s 73 says:

 

73 Charging orders

(1)   … Any court in which a solicitor has been employed to prosecute or defend any suit, matter or proceedings may at any time –

(a)declare the solicitor entitled to a charge on any property recovered or preserved through his instrumentality for his assessed costs in relation to that suit, matter or proceeding;…

 

Only assessed costs can be charged, and the court must declare the availability of the charge; but otherwise the terminology is – in effect – exactly the same as the charge under Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 s 25(1). So you apply in the constructive trust proceedings (CPR 1998 Part 23) for assessment of your bill to Mary (now approaching a total of £17,000 net of the £2,500 she has paid). The judge assesses the amount you claim and you enter a charge against Mary’s charge.

 

But – and this is the main point of the story in relation to separate legal aid – do you imagine the court will allow you to assess and charge the unpaid domestic violence costs against property recovered in the trust case? I am as sure as I can be, not. It is a separate retainer, and wholly separate proceedings. I would expect a costs judge to say you are limited to detailed assessment on the costs which arose in the constructive trust proceedings (£12,500 and to declare accordingly under Solicitors Act 1974 s 73) – that is, where property was recovered or preserved with your help (your ‘instrumentality’). And it is that same point which applies, I believe, to ‘separate’ care and HRA proceedings?

 

Legal aid statutory charge: solicitor’s lien

 

Many questions which crop up in legal aid statutory charge cases can be answered by seeing it – subject to statutory exemptions under Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012 – as much the same as the Solicitors Act 1974 s 73 solicitor’s lien. This works both ways.

 

In Manley, for example, as soon as you ask the question: would a solicitor or barrister settle a case on terms that they knew that everyone – except them – was to be paid. Of course not. Looked at that way the Manley settlement terms were bound to fail. But in Mary’s case, in the opposite direction, her solicitor could not expect the costs judge to say, ‘there, there, you didn’t get enough costs on account, so I’ll give you a charge for whatever is due from that claimant (ie Mary) to your firm’. The judge would assess your bill for the work which applies under the CPR 1998 proceedings, and leave you to sue for the rest and charge that as well when you’ve gone through the separate charging order process for those costs.

 

Imagine that the HRA damages claim are the domestic violence proceedings, and the care proceedings are the constructive trust proceedings. They are separate; or in my opinion – see Legal aid statutory charge and care proceedings – they should be. You get paid, all being well, by the local authority on the HRA case; though if there is any shortfall on your costs in the HRA proceedings the legal aid charge will, of course, apply to the damages for that short-fall. The care proceedings are a separate retainer. Legal aid costs and a charge for those proceedings on the HRA damages should have nothing to do with one another, in my opinion.

Legal aid statutory charge and care proceedings

No application to family courts proceedings

 

Following on from HRA damages and legal aid: a Pyrrhic exercise?  a narrow question has arisen over whether the Family Court has power to award damages. More to the point: has the Family Court administration got power to permit issue of ‘civil proceedings’ under Human Rights Act 1998 (‘HRA’); and can family judges award damages?

 

These questions arise immediately where parents or children have been pursuing claims for HRA damages arising from local authority claims, often in relation to care proceedings in the family courts. In the above article I have expressed doubts as to whether this is correct. It is important because in some cases the Legal Aid Agency (‘LAA’) are simply mopping up damages received by parents or their children and setting it against the legal aid in the care proceedings. If they have been allowed to do this by children’s, or parents’, lawyers, I believe this to be unlawful; and if I am right, the LAA should pay the money back.

 

The issue arises from Human Rights Act 1998 (‘HRA’) s 8, as relevant for present purposes, says:

 

8 Judicial remedies

(1) In relation to any act (or proposed act) of a public authority which the court finds is (or would be) unlawful, it may grant such relief or remedy, or make such order, within its powers as it considers just and appropriate.

(2) But damages may be awarded only by a court which has power to award damages, or to order the payment of compensation, in civil proceedings.

 

Most people reading that would probably say that its ordinary English words mean that in the case of an ‘unlawful’ act (which refers back to maladministration by a public authority under HRA ss 6 and 7 under European Convention 1950) a court can make an appropriate order ‘within its powers’. If it chooses to make an order for damages the court so doing must have ‘power to award damages… in civil proceedings’ (s 8(2)).

 

At the time of the coming into operation of HRA a family law text-book Family Law and the Human Rights Act 1998 (Swindells et al, 1999) considered s 8(1) and (2) to mean:

 

2.20  A damages award can be made only by a court with jurisdiction to do so (HRA 1998 s 8(2)). As it is doubtful that family courts have such jurisdiction, if damages are sought the claim will have to be made in the civil courts.

 

6.70  … The family courts do not in any event have any power to make awards of damages even were they to be persuaded that Convention rights had been violated and damage suffered as a result.

 

I am not aware of any judge saying in terms that that was wrong; though a lot of HRA water has flowed under the bridge since then. I know of no family law case which deals with the meaning of s 8(2) (I have searched the FLR assisted search facility on HRA s 8).

 

Application in family proceedings

 

First, what proceedings can be issued in family courts? In the family courts the form of court proceedings is defined by Courts Act 2003 s 75, which takes you to Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 and, eventually, you arrive at Senior Courts Act 1981 Sch 1 para 3. This defines the list of forms of proceedings – ‘family business’ – which can be issued in the courts under Family Procedure Rules 2010. There is no mention of Human Rights Act 1998 claims in Sch 1.

 

That is why, for example, you cannot claim a share in your (unmarried) partner’s property, if it is in his or her sole name (Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 s 14), or claim against your dead parent’s or spouse’s property (if they don’t leave you enough: Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975). All family lawyers know that: you have to issue ‘civil proceedings’ – that word again – under CPR 1998. And that is so even if, in the case of your partner’s property s/he is parent of your child, and you are making a claim for property for the child in FPR 2010 proceedings under Children Act 1989 Sch 1.

 

In short, just because it is a family matter – suing your grand-mother for specific performance of an agreement or making a claim against your boy-friend for property in his name – does not mean you can apply in the family courts if your case does not come within Sch 1. And it may be good practice form a legal aid point of view if your lawyer does not attempt to do so (see below).

 

Family courts are quite used to case managing cases – at least in theory – so that CPR 1998 (TOLATA proceedings) are dealt with alongside FPR 2010 proceedings (and see eg bankruptcy court and money proceedings: Arif v Zar and anor [2012] EWCA Civ 986). They can also manage care cases so that issues are split: threshold in care proceedings (CA 1989 s 31(2)) from welfare issues if the care threshold is achieved by the local authority applicant.

 

So why not split and case manage (as need be) the separate issues which arise on a FPR 2010 care case; and a HRA damages CPR 1998 ‘civil proceedings’ care case? The answer is, in my view: none at all. It follows the law (always a good idea for a judge to follow the law). And – a quite separate point – it is certainly good practice from the legal aid point of view (see separate article of Avoiding the legal aid statutory charge).

 

Order in family proceedings

 

It is said that Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 s 31E helps. This provides, as relevant here:

 

31E Family court has High Court and county court powers

(1)   In any proceedings in the family court, the court may make any order –

(a)which could be made by the High Court if the proceedings were in the High Court, or

(b)which could be made by the county court if the proceedings were in the county court.

(2) In its application to a power of the High Court to issue a writ directed to an enforcement officer, subsection (1)(a) gives the family court power to issue a warrant, directed to an officer of the family court, containing provision corresponding to any that might be contained in the writ.

(3) Subsection (1) is subject to section 38(3) of the County Courts Act 1984.

 

Subsection (3) means that the Family Court, like the County Court, cannot make orders on an application for judicial review (which may prove relevant in a HRA context; but that is for another day).

 

MFPA 1984 s 31E is in a long line of legislation which endows lesser courts with the powers of higher (or, in this case, parallel) courts, as does County Courts Act 1984 s 38. Section 31E is based on s 38 (and see County Court Remedies Regulations 2014). Traditionally s 38 was relied on to enable county courts (including those then dealing with family proceedings) to make inherent jurisdiction orders (eg injunctions) which they did not have; and, for example, it was used to enable district judge’s to order that they should sign documents (Senior Courts Act 1981 s 39).

 

That is s 31E enables orders to be made at the conclusion of, or during the course of (interim orders), proceedings. It does not add to the jurisdiction defined by SCA 1981 Sch 1; for if it did, family lawyers would use family courts for any application (eg constructive trust, breach of contract and s 14 proceedings, as you can do in county courts); suing for damages for personal injuries (which county courts certainly have powers to order) and so on. Plainly this cannot happen. That would be massively to extend the jurisdiction under SCA 1981 Sch 1 which is not what Parliament envisaged.

 

‘Power to award damages… in civil proceedings’

 

So what does HRA s 8(2) and its reference to ‘civil proceedings’ mean? In 1997-8 Parliament deliberately decided to treat civil and ‘family’ proceedings separately. Civil Procedure Act 1997 (neither does that Act nor HRA 1998 define ‘civil proceedings’) set up the machinery for CPR 1998.

 

The term ‘civil proceedings’, for rule-making purposes, was specifically defined to exclude family proceedings.  CPR 1998 could not be used for family proceedings as defined (now) by Courts Act 2003 s 75 (CPR 1998 r 2.1(2)). Section 75 sets up the machinery for making family proceedings rules separate from CPR 1998, which eventually lead to FPR 2010 (cf Family Proceedings Rules 1991 which were subject to the provisions of the then civil proceedings rules). In HRA s 8(2) the reference to ‘civil proceedings’ is likely to be the post 1997-8 definition, rather than the term (ie most non-criminal proceedings) which operated till then. On that logic, proceedings under s 8(2) as ‘civil proceedings’, were intended by Parliament to be issued under CPR 1998, not as or within family proceedings.

 

The reference to Courts Act 2003 s 75, at s 75(3), takes the reader to MFPA 1984 s 32 (which defines ‘family business’) which is defined by SCA 1981 s 61 and Sch 1 para 3 (as explained above). Para 3 makes no reference to claims under s 8(1), which is unsurprising since damages claims are not always immediately associated with ‘family business’ – there are many other forms of proceedings which may lead to a claim under s 8(2). It seems likely that s 8(2) did not assume that family courts would adopt a ‘power to award damages’; and that is the view taken by text-book writers at the time of introduction of HRA 1998 (eg Swindells, above).

 

‘Separate proceedings’ in judicial review: Anufrijeva

 

Claims should be by judicial review – which cannot be in the county courts (see CCA 1984 s 38(3) above. This is explained by the Court of Appeal in Anufrijeva and anor v Southwark London Borough Council [2003] EWCA Civ (judgment: 16 October 2003). This is by CPR 1998 Pt 54 (which is not difficult). This will be in writing, and – in care proceedings – based on facts already found in family courts. Issue estoppel will mostly narrow the factual proof. This need not be a difficult exercise, not one which is beyond the wit of most judges to case manage. From a legal aid point of view it is very important. There will then be no doubt that the legal aid statutory charge cannot apply to damages.