A family solicitor from Withy King in Swindon has been praised by a senior judge for providing over 100 hours of free legal support to a father with learning disabilities who is battling to try and prevent Swindon Borough Council from having his young son adopted.
Rebecca Stevens, who specialises in cases involving children, has provided her services free of charge because the parents of the child known as ‘D’ are not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford private legal representation.
When deciding whether child ‘D’ should live with his parents, members of his wider family or – as argued by Swindon Borough Council – be adopted outside his family, Head of Family Justice Sir James Munby, questioned the lack of funding available for the parents’ legal representation.
In his judgement, Sir James Munby said the parents were disqualified from receiving legal aid because the father’s net monthly income in May was £34.64 above the limit of £733 set by the Government.
He said: “The father’s modest earnings disqualify him, and therefore the mother, from receiving legal aid. They cannot afford private representation. They are, at present, wholly dependent on the good will of members of the legal profession, who, to their enormous credit, and acting in the highest traditions of the profession, are acting pro bono, that is, for no fee and paying their travel and other expenses out of their own pocket.”
He went on to say: “I am told that Ms Stevens has spent in excess of 100 hours, all unremunerated, working to resolve, thus far without success, the issue of the father’s entitlement to legal aid. This is devotion to the client far above and far beyond the call of duty.”
Ms Stevens of Withy King said: “I have known my client for a number of years having represented him within previous care proceedings. I was contacted by my client following an indication from the Local Authority that they wanted to remove their child from their care.
“I was astounded to discover that my client was not eligible for public funding due to his limited means being over the threshold. He is a remarkable person who has maintained a happy family life along with full-time employment despite his own personal difficulties.
“My client is proud to financially support his family and I think this should be congratulated and he should not be penalised for this in respect of public funding. It is abhorrent, unfair and unjust that public funding is not automatic in situations where the state wish to remove a child from a parent’s care and place the child for adoption.
“I feel that I have a moral obligation to assist my client and did not think twice about representing him pro bono. I am fortunate to have a fantastic team who were also willing to undertake this pro bono work, in their own time, with the full support of Withy King. Like all legal aid lawyers, my work is my vocation and passion and not just a job.”
This case has received widespread public attention, turning the spotlight back onto the Government’s highly controversial legal aid cuts which have been blamed for preventing some of the most vulnerable members of society from accessing justice.
Sir James Munby described the parents’ predicament in this case as “stark, indeed shocking, a word which I use advisedly but without hesitation.”
He went on to say that “the State has simply washed its hands of the problem, leaving the solution to the problem which the State itself has created – for the State has brought the proceedings but declined all responsibility for ensuring that the parents are able to participate effectively in the proceedings it has brought – to the goodwill, the charity, of the legal profession.”
Sir James, who is President of the Family Division at the Royal Courts of Justice, has directed that there should be a further hearing to decide, assuming the parents are still without legal aid, whether the parents’ legal costs should be met by either the local authority, the legal aid fund or Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service.
This week (3 – 7 November) marks National Pro Bono Week, which celebrates the contributions made by lawyers to help people in dire need.