A family judge has lambasted the ‘almost impenetrable’ level of bureaucracy faced by solicitors dealing with the Legal Aid Agency.
Judge Clifford Bellamy, sitting in the High Court in Leicester, said the LAA had been ‘wasteful and inefficient’ in dealing with an application for funding for an expert witness report.
The judge had made an order for up to £2,500 to be spent on a report from an expert in Indian family law.
The report was needed to help in an application to change a court order by a mother to take her four children to her birth home in India. The father, from whom she is separated, opposed the change as he feared she would not bring the children back to England.
Judge Bellamy (pictured) said ‘considerable’ efforts had been made to secure expert evidence to establish the legal implications of a visit and directed that the costs be borne by the mother.
The LAA then refused to grant authority for the instruction of the expert on the basis that costs should be ‘equally shared’.
During a subsequent hearing, Mrs Justice Eleanor King said that the expert’s report was ‘absolutely necessary’ for the proper determination of the case. Again the application by the mother’s solicitor was refused.
Judge Bellamy said it was ‘simply unacceptable’ that Justice King’s case management directions were ‘effectively overridden’ by the LAA.
Solicitors acting for the mother, he said, had spent a great deal of time pursuing the issue and then had to explain to her the LAA decision could not be appealed.
The judge said he had concerns about the ‘negative, costly and unhelpful impact’ of the LAA’s actions in the case.
He added: ‘If this case is at all illustrative of the way the LAA normally discharges its responsibilities then that is deeply troubling.’
He said solicitors faced a choice of instructing the proposed expert and hoping the fee will be repaid or applying to the LAA for prior authority to incur that disbursement.
‘No solicitor acting for a publicly funded party should be expected to take the risk of being out of pocket by instructing an expert without prior authority from the LAA,’ he added.
The judge instructed that the mother should not be allowed to take the children to India as there were not sufficient safeguarding measures in place.
In light of criticisms, the judge directed that the solicitor for the children's guardian forward a copy of the judgment to the chief executive of the LAA and order that he shall respond to it in writing within 28 days.
A spokesman for the LAA said: 'We note the judge's remarks and will be responding in writing, as directed.'