Lawyers have expressed concern over comments made by the president of the Family Division about the representation of children in public law cases.
Family law group Resolution said Sir James Munby’s words could be misconstrued to suggest lawyers are making a ‘heap of money’ from the public purse.
In his latest ‘View from the president’s chambers’, Munby (pictured) said the Ministry of Justice, with his support, is investigating where there is scope for reforming the ‘tandem’ model of representation, which requires that in every care case a child is represented by a guardian and solicitor.
Munby stressed that only the tandem model can ensure that a child’s interests, wishes and feelings are catered for, but added: ‘This does not mean… that the practical operation of the tandem model should be immune from scrutiny.’ In some cases, he said, the solicitor will instruct counsel. Sometimes, in the ‘very heaviest’ cases, two counsel, a junior and a QC will be instructed. ‘This, I emphasise, is as it should be. But we need to remember that all this costs money,’ Munby said.
In this context, Munby repeated comments he made in Re L last year: ‘I end with yet another plea for restraint in the expenditure of public funds… It is no good complaining that public funds are available only for X and not for Y if money available for X is being squandered.
‘Money should be spent only on what is “necessary” to enable the court to deal with the proceedings “justly”. If a task is not “necessary” – if it is unnecessary – why should litigants or their professional advisers expect public money to be made available? They cannot and should not.’
Resolution stressed that solicitors and barristers attending court are paid the same fixed fee under the government’s family advocacy scheme.
It added: ‘The Legal Aid Agency has to grant prior authority to instruct lead counsel (or two). There are already stringent rules in place about this.
‘Our concern over the way this is phrased is it could be (and in some cases has been) misconstrued to suggest lawyers are making a heap of money out of the public purse. Anybody who does legal aid work will confirm this couldn’t be further from the truth.’
Resolution said a child is party to proceedings and is entitled to attend all hearings. A guardian’s attendance is excused on occasion due to time demands. ‘However, they have a legal representative in attendance to ensure they are involved in all key decisions that are made at court hearings and kept fully informed of all crucial developments,’ Resolution said.