The solicitor at the heart of a long-running legal aid funding dispute has warned that more challenges are likely without changes to the application system.
Rebecca Stevens (pictured), of south-west firm Withy King, has been praised by Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, for working more than 100 hours pro bono for parents fighting to stop their toddler being adopted.
Munby last week criticised the time it has taken to resolve the funding issue: the child was removed from his parents in April and legal aid granted, subject to monthly contributions, in December. Funding for the final hearing next month is still to be resolved.
Munby said the parents, who both have learning difficulties, ‘could be forgiven for thinking they are trapped in a system which is neither compassionate nor even humane’.
The Legal Aid Agency has said the delay was because the correct information was not provided.
But Stevens said the nature of the application process means more parents in such a position will struggle with obtaining funding.
‘A disproportionate amount of parents with learning difficulties face the prospect of losing their child through care proceedings because they do not have the ability to apply for funding or the means to defend themselves,’ she said.
Stevens called for automatic legal aid in cases where the state intends to remove a child from their parents’ care and place them for adoption.
In his judgment, Munby suggested it was ‘unthinkable’ that the parents should have to face the local authority’s application without proper representation.
An LAA spokesman said: ‘The means test has long existed and the LAA cannot grant legal aid without accurate information from clients and their lawyers. We have specialist teams in place who can help lawyers assist applicants with the process.’