I seem to spend much of my time here writing about misconceptions concerning the operation of the family justice system. In my post yesterday I mentioned the case Re C, in which a mother was given permission by the court to remove her child’s middle name. In passing I mentioned that the case had made it into at least three national newspapers, although mainly with the suggestion that it was a waste of legal aid money, rather than about the decision itself. I thought I should say something in response to the misconceptions contained in those reports.
Let’s begin by looking at some of the things the reports said. Firstly, there was this:
“Mum who didn’t like her child’s middle name wins right to have it removed in challenge costing thousands in legal aid”
Followed by this:
“The mum was handed thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to fight the dad in a family court”
And then there was this:
“A mother who no longer liked her child’s middle name used legal aid to remove it”
And finally we were told that:
“The decision to grant legal aid was criticised by Conservative MP Philip Hollobone last night who said there were ‘more deserving cases’ for taxpayers money to spend on’, in an apparent reference to the parents of tragic Charlie Gard – who were denied financial help. “I find it really surprising that public money has been used in this way. There are far more deserving cases than this one,’” said Mr Hollobone.”
I could go on, but I think those extracts provide a sufficient flavour.
OK, there are so many things wrong with all of this that it is difficult to know where to begin.
I suppose the starting-point must be a consideration of the availability of legal aid. We are not told how long the case has been going on, but prior to April 2013 legal aid would have been available for private family law cases dealing with arrangements for children, such as this one. Since April 2013 legal aid has only been available for private law family case where there is evidence of domestic violence or abuse, or child abuse. So, if the mother applied for legal aid after the change then there must have been an element of abuse in the case. When the government made the reductions to legal aid availability, it specifically decided that it should remain available in cases involving abuse – in other words, if the mother applied for legal aid after the change, then hers was a case deserving of legal aid.
There is also an indication contained in the report of the case (which you can find here) that the mother had “continued to receive public funding [i.e. legal aid] in relation to a further application arising out of the child arrangements order”. There was therefore more going on in the case than just the issue relating to the child’s middle name. How can anyone criticise the grant of legal aid without knowing what that issue was?
Even in relation to the name issue, it is misleading to say that the mother wanted it changed simply because she “no longer liked” the name. There was a specific concern that the name now had bad connotations, which could adversely affect the child’s welfare. And remember that the court agreed with this. Again, how can the grant of legal aid in such circumstances be the object of criticism? Isn’t the welfare of a child sufficiently important?
Moving on, we had the usual nonsense of the legal aid money being “handed” to the mother. It was not handed to her. In fact, she would never have seen the money, which would have gone direct to her lawyers. There is also speculation about the amount involved, with the reports saying it ran into the “thousands”. It probably did, but this is complete speculation – the papers will have had no information as to the exact amount involved.
The papers also conveniently fail to mention that the mother’s legal aid did not cover the father’s appeal against the order. Neither the mother nor the father were represented on the appeal. The taxpayers’ money did not cover the entirety of the mother’s “fight”.
And then finally there are the crass comments of the MP. Clearly without full information of the case (remember the report of the case is deliberately vague, and part of the judgment was redacted), he decided that this was not a deserving case, and irrelevantly compared it to another, entirely different, case. An MP should really know better than this, although I have to say that I am not surprised.
In short, there was no scandal involved here. Legal aid was granted in accordance with the rules that the government itself laid down, and was fully ‘deserved’. Even if it was not, is it really beneficial to get into an argument as to what specific cases are deserving and what aren’t? By all means have that discussion in general terms, but to involve real individuals and their cases and suggest that they were not deserving of public money is at best an unnecessary intrusion and at worst extremely distressing for those individuals.