The Court of Appeal has called for clarity over ‘disgracefully complex’ legal aid legislation after an elderly man was committed to prison in the absence of publicly funded legal representation to which he was entitled.

Handing down judgment in Ronald Brown v London Borough of Haringey, Lord Justice McCombe (pictured) said the question of legal aid availability in county court contempt proceedings ‘needs to be clear to lawyer and laymen alike. It is not. The legislation is disgracefully complex’.

Ronald Brown, 80, was appealing a decision made by His Honour Judge David Mitchell in Central London County Court on 27 November 2014 to commit him to prison for a total of 18 months for contempt of court over a breach of injunctions related to nuisance and anti-social behaviour. 

Brown claimed his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights were breached, amounting to ‘a serious procedural or other irregularity in the proceedings in the lower court’.

The appeal was allowed. The committal order and factual findings upon which it was based were quashed.

McCombe LJ said Brown’s entitlement to legal aid ‘was never properly understood and determined by the legal aid authorities and, in consequence, the [county court proceedings] went wrong’.

Attempts by Brown’s current solicitors to obtain legal aid for the contempt application were ‘rebuffed by the authorities dealing with civil and criminal legal aid respectively’ that led to Brown attending the committal application ‘with no representation and no information that funding for it would be forthcoming’.

McCombe said that power was given to the director of the Legal Aid Agency to grant such representation, but he noted: ‘Unfortunately, although nothing could be simpler, there is no clear legislative provision providing in straightforward terms that applications for publicly funded representation for committal proceedings in the county court are to be made to the director.’

Brown’s solicitors ‘were sent from “pillar to post” in the weeks before the hearing by the civil and criminal legal aid authorities respectively, and as a result whatever right he might have had to public funding was lost for all practical purposes. There seems to be little doubt that, from a financial point of view, the appellant would have qualified for assistance’.

McCombe encouraged the LAA, the courts service, judiciary, the profession and voluntary organisations that assist litigants ‘to cooperate in ensuring at an early stage in committal proceedings that all concerned are aware of the authority to which legal aid applications in such cases are to be made and what the entitlements are’.

He suggested consideration be given to ‘the promulgation of standard directions’, either on the application notice itself or in any preliminary order regulating the procedure in an individual case.