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Unrepresented litigants delay cases, judge declares

Failure to provide legal aid slows down family cases and is a “false economy”, a judge has declared.

A Local Authority v M & Ors concerned ‘M’, a 24 year-old man with autism and learning disabilities. Until the age of 18, he had lived an active life at home with his mother, ‘E’, and his father ‘A’, attending special schools.

But his parents then sought a residential placement for their son, where he could continue his education, and this brought them into contact with the local authority for the first time.

In the Court of Protection, Mr Justice Baker noted:

“From that point… the picture changed and there has been almost continuous conflict, in particular between M’s mother, E, and the local authority.”

E and A claimed that the local authority had been engaged in a “malicious campaign” designed to remove M from their care. Social workers, countered that E in particular was highly controlling of M, and even that she had fabricated claims that he suffered from various illnesses. She had also subjected him to an unnecessary restrictive diet, they said.

Multiple court proceedings followed, and the case eventually proceeded to the Court of Protection. This branch of the High Court makes rulings on behalf of those unable to make their own legal decisions. It was asked to rule on where M would live in the future and how he should be cared for.

The parents vociferously disputed the local authority’s claims and so the judge conducted a “lengthy” fact-finding hearing. This had initially been expected to take ten days but ended up taking twice as long.

Mr Justice Baker said a contributory factor to the delay was the fact that A and E had represented themselves during the complex case. He declared:

“One lesson of this case is that, if parties such as E and A are to be unrepresented in hearings of this kind, be it in the Court of Protection or in the Family Court, the hearings will often take very considerably longer than if they were represented. Denying legal aid in such cases is, thus, a false economy.”

Turning to the case itself, the judge discussed the many disputes between the mother and the local authority.

“Throughout this hearing she has repeatedly accused the local authority of pursuing its own agenda. I find that it is she who has an unshakeable agenda to follow her own course in pursuit of her own beliefs about M’s condition and how it should be treated.”

This behaviour, which included criticism, bullying and repeated complaints, was “wholly unreasonable”, he said. A psychologist suggested that the mother may in fact suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, and consequently have an exaggerated sense of self importance.

The parents loved their son and wanted the best for him, the judge declared, and they could offer him “an enormous amount” if they were willing cooperate with the local authority and social workers in their son’s best interests.

“I have not given up hope that this may be achieved. Such an outcome would be manifestly to M’s advantage. It will not be achieved, however, unless E and A – in particular, E – can demonstrate a fundamental change of attitude.”

M should continue to live in his current accommodation, having supervised contact with his parents twice a week, pending a more detailed assessment of his future options.

Read the full judgement here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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