Costs and test cases

In a short judgment Mr Justice Baker declined to award the Official Solicitor his costs after a CCG withdrew applications in relation to a series of test cases.  You can read the judgment here.

The case concerned applications in relation to the living arrangements of incapacitated adults for whom the CCG had responsibility.  All were living in their own home and the CCG sought clarification as to whether such individuals satisfied the “acid test”.  The CCG also questioned whether the responsibility for any deprivation of liberty was imputable to the state solely by virtue of the fact that it provided NHS care for P.  If either the acid test was not satisfied or the arrangements were not imputable to the state, of course, the adults concerned would not be deprived of their liberty for the purpose of Article 5 and thus the CCG would not be required to make an application to court for a welfare order under section 16 MCA 2005.

The Official Solicitor was invited to act for the four adults originally involved in the test case.  Two were not eligible for legal aid and it was not considered reasonable to utilise P’s funds for this purpose.  Subsequently one of these cases could proceed and the CCG applied to withdraw its application because the practical impact would be very limited; the CCG had reviewed its position in light of the OS’ analysis and the CCG considered that both the relevance and the strength of the application had been limited by the Law Commission’s proposed reforms.  The Official Solicitor sought his costs, submitting that in reality the application was akin to a civil claim where he had succeeded.

Baker J refused the application.  He gave no weight to the argument that the costs would be borne by the public purse in the form of the Legal Aid Agency stating that a legally aided party should be treated in exactly the same way as one without a legal aid certificate.  He rejected the application for costs in these terms:

 

(1) I do not accept the suggestion that this was not a typical welfare case. The application concerned a series of welfare cases in which an important preliminary issue arose on a point of law.(2) As is widely recognised, the law concerning deprivation of liberty under the Mental Capacity Act is in a state of some uncertainty. That is why it has been the subject of a review by the Law Commission whose final report contains recommendations for substantial reform. The government has now accepted the report and the majority of its recommendations, and acknowledged that the current Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards should be replaced “as a matter of pressing urgency” (see government response 14 March 2018).

(3) It was in my judgment understandable that the applicant sought guidance on the issue of the impact of the “acid test” on cases involving incapacitated adults living at home, given the large number of individuals in those circumstances for whom it is responsible. In the words of rule 159(2)(b), it was reasonable for the applicant to raise and pursue this issue.

(4) Given the constraints under which all public bodies operate, the applicant was entirely justified in keeping under review the question of whether to pursue the case. Indeed, it would have been remiss if it had not done so. The fact that the applicant decided to abort the proceedings was a reasonable decision. To use the words in rule 159(2)(b) again, it was reasonable for the applicant to decide not to contest the issue in the light of developments in the litigation as described above.

(5) Although it is arguable that the difficulties in the individual cases could have been anticipated, I do not think that the applicant’s failure to do so at an earlier stage could be described as litigation conduct of the sort to justify departing from the general rule.

(6) Although my comments in G v E (Costs) above were made in a different context, they do have some relevance here. Professionals working in this field often face difficult judgements and decisions. The applicant made the decision to ask the court to consider the preliminary issue which, as Mr Ruck Keene fairly conceded, involved propositions of general and considerable importance. Subsequently, however, in the light of developments within the cases, the applicant decided not to pursue the issue. In all the circumstances, I do not consider that its decision-making and overall conduct justifies a departure from the general rule as to costs.

Comment:  This is a useful application of the principles concerning costs to an unusual situation namely where an important preliminary issue arises in a “typical welfare case”.  Key to this was the judge’s assessment that it was reasonable for the CCG to seek guidance about the applicability of Article 5 given the significant financial impact in a time of financial constraints had the CCG been successful; but that it was also reasonable to keep the need for the proceedings under review and to seek to withdraw them when the issue, although fascinating, had become academic.

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