A woman who claims she was wrongfully arrested has won a High Court battle to fund her case through legal aid.
Sunita Sisangia sought public funding for a claim she intends to bring against the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
The mother of two was arrested for alleged harassment in the early hours of 7 January 2011 after a dispute with a neighbour two weeks previously.
She claims she was not told why she was under arrest and, after being taken to Wembley police station, says she was denied her medication for four hours and provided with no food between 9.53am and her release at 3.45pm. The police later decided no crime had been committed.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission upheld some of Sisangia's complaints, but after she applied for public assistance last year she was told her claim for false imprisonment did not fall within the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
The claim for funding was dependent on provisions of paragraph 21 of Schedule 1 of LASPO, which says funding should be granted in cases of abuse of position or powers by a public authority.
In a letter to Sisangia, the director of legal aid casework for the Ministry of Justice said the term ‘abuse’ was defined as ‘deliberate or dishonest and which results in foreseeable harm’.
The letter added: ‘Frankly, arresting someone in the normal course of one’s duty is not abuse, and does not to my mind begin to satisfy the deliberate or dishonest test, even where there may be an argument over reasonable suspicion or necessity.’
However, sitting in the High Court, The Honourable Mr Justice Dingemans said paragraph 21 offered ‘no relevant ambiguity or obscurity’ which would support the government’s position.
He concluded the proposed claim for civil legal aid fell within the provisions of LASPO and to veer from these would mean members of the public would not be able to hold public authorities to account. To reject an application, he added, would go against the intention of parliament when drawing up LASPO.
Hodge Jones & Allen, the London firm which represented Sisangia, said the Legal Aid Agency’s interpretation would effectively require every claim to show dishonesty in order to qualify for funding.
Trudy Morgan, solicitor at HJA said: ‘Practitioners have noted an increasing tendency for the LAA to focus on reasons to refuse funding, presumably in a bid to further reduce the legal aid bill. If this is indeed the case, it means that there is a real danger of narrowing the scope of funding beyond what was intended by parliament.
‘I am pleased that with this case we have been able to limit an attempt to restrict public funding for cases where fundamental rights are at stake.'
A MoJ spokesperson said it was disappointed by the judgment and understood the LAA is considering whether to appeal.
'We believe the LAA are right that the LASPO Act passed by parliament intended that only cases involving the most serious allegations of misuse of power by public authorities should receive legal aid funding.
'We made tough choices to make the necessary savings whilst still ensuring legal aid remained available where people were most in need of a lawyer. Legal aid is still available where life or liberty is at stake, where people are at serious risk of physical harm, where domestic violence is involved and where someone is at risk of homelessness.'