Six more reasons to keep legal aid

Reason one
Smoldon v Whitworth & Nolan
Ben Smoldon (left) was just 17 when he broke his neck during a rugby match in 1991. He successfully sued the referee for damages and won his case in April 1996 but had to wait until March this year to receive damages of u1.95m.
He had been playing in a derby match between the under-19 teams of two local rugby clubs when, just 10 minutes before the end, a scrum collapsed, leaving Smoldon confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
He brought proceedings against both the opposition prop Thomas Whitworth and the referee Michael Nolan, but the judge absolved Whitworth of any liability.
However Nolan was found by the judge to have “failed to exercise reasonable care and skill” in preventing scrum collapses. Smoldon won the u1.95m damages from the Rugby Football Union.
“Because this case was the first of its kind, there is no way it could have been brought to trial without legal aid,” says Smoldon. “I need full-time care for the rest of my life and I will not be able to pursue a career. I have now received damages which will cater for that, and I cannot thank legal aid enough.”
Smoldon's solicitor Terry Lee, of Evill & Coleman, says: “The Legal Aid Board always supported the case even though it knew there was a chance we wouldn't be successful. The prospects of a win were just not high enough for us to take this on a no win, no fee basis.”
Reason two
Justice for the Longcare Survivors v Buckinghamshire County Council (pending)
In 1994 the families of more than 50 adults with learning disabilities were told that their children – some in their twenties but with mental ages of just three – had been systematically abused in two residential homes licensed by Buckingham shire County Council.
At a criminal trial at Kingston Crown Court in 1997 three people were convicted of involvement in the abuse, two of them were given prison sentences. The homes – Stoke Place and Stoke Green House – were owned by the Longcare company. Its owner, Gordon Rowe, committed suicide before he was due to stand trial.
The council's social services department, acting on anonymous tip-offs and allegations of abuse, conducted an investigation into the home during 1993 and 1994. It was this investigation which led to the parents and guardians being told of the abuse.
However there had been earlier complaints made to the council and police about the homes and Gordon Rowe, but the parents and guardians were not made aware of them. The Longcare Survivors allege that there was a breach of duty by the council and that it should have been more vigilant in its care of the people in the residential homes.
It intends to issue a writ against the council this year and is considering extending the action to others involved in the case.
“With people with learning difficulties one of the real problems (with a legal action) is showing the degree to which they have been damaged,” says the chairman of the Longcare group June Raybaud. “There is a lack of experience of this type of case and so therefore who would take them on a conditional fee basis?
“There is a lack of prosecutions, a lack of similar cases that ever make it to court. As a result there is a lack of convictions and I don't believe that these cases would even get a foot in the door if they had to be argued on a conditional fee basis.”
Raybaud is a barrister and sits on the Legal Aid Board. Her niece, who had a mental age of three, was one of those abused at the Longcare homes. She died two years ago aged 28. Her family believes that the abuse she suffered in the Longcare homes contributed to her early death.
“We are still compiling reports on the damage suffered, the psychiatric information, and evidence from the Rowe records. But without legal aid this case would have been a non-starter. It is not an open and shut case and there is no legal precedent. We could have perhaps got one solicitor to do it on a conditional fee basis but once they realised that the work involved would take up all their time, they would have been forced to drop it.”
Reason three
Daniel Burnett (by his next friend James Potter) v Steven John Duckworth
A 17-year-old cyclist was left with severe head injuries after being hit by a car in November 1993. He succeeded in proving the liability of the driver despite completely conflicting statements.
Daniel Burnett will need help for the rest of his life and it is unlikely that he will ever work again.
The defendant Steven Duckworth claimed that Burnett had cycled out in front of him and that the accident was an unavoidable collision.
But solicitor Carol Jackson of Pannone & Partners managed to interview a passenger in the defendant's vehicle who said the driver had been distracted by her at the time of the collision.
The defendant dismissed her testimony as that of an embittered girlfriend. But a High Court judge last year accepted the evidence and judged that while he was not wholly responsible, the weight of liability lay with the driver. The damages are yet to be settled.
Jackson says: “This was a case of completely contrary evidence. It wasn't a matter of legal skills, it was merely a question of who the judge would believe on the day.
“It would be an impossible situation without legal aid because there would be a very high risk (of losing) involved.”
Daniel's mother adds: “My son's life has been ruined through no fault of his own. I just can't imagine what we would've done if we hadn't been able to bring this case.
“This money is the only chance Danny has of having some kind of future.”
Reason four
Dipesh Parmar v E Castle
Six-year-old Dipesh Parmar was left confined to a wheelchair and in need of permanent artificial ventilation after a lorry attempted a right turn into the path of the vehicle he was travelling in.
Dipesh was a passenger in the back seat of the car, and the collision left him a tetraplegic – unable to work and in need of round-the-clock care.
The accident happened in August 1991. But in a ruling earlier this year the boy, now 15, was awarded a structured settlement of u185,000 a year for the rest of his life.
Although liability was accepted by the lorry driver in 1994, the medical evidence required to prove Dipesh's case involved experts from across the world. They had to resolve issues about life expectancy and the level of nursing care Dipesh would require.
The costs of the case are likely to be settled at more than u200,000.
Dipesh's father says: “Without legal aid it would have been very hard for us to bring this case. But the money is essential if Dipesh is ever going to be able to live independently. He needs it for wheelchairs and nursing care for the rest of his life.”
His solicitor Adrian Ganderton of Bray & Bray says: “Had the family not been entitled to legal aid they would not have been able to fund the medical reports, which would have made the case very difficult.”
Reason five
June Hancock v JW Roberts Ltd
In 1996 a dying woman successfully won damages of u65,000 for the effects of asbestos dust in an area where she had played as a child around 60 years earlier.
June Hancock, 59, was already suffering from the effects of asbestos-related cancer when she won her case. She died two years later.
She took on the owners of a multinational company and came away as the victor, in a trial which would not have reached court but for legal aid support.
The case took a team of 13 lawyers nearly a year to prepare, with well over 100,000 documents having to be reviewed.
June's solicitor, Adrian Budgen of Irwin Mitchell in Sheffield, says: “She was a working class woman with few resources. She didn't do it for the money, she just wanted a sense of justice.
“It was a very, very difficult case, the like of which I doubt I will ever see again. Lots of firms refused to take it even on a legal aid basis, but the eventual result was really satisfying.”
He adds: “My fear is that such ground-breaking cases will not be brought forward in the future, because without legal aid support lawyers will not be able to take on the might of large corporations in lengthy drawn-out battles.”
Reason six
Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR)/ Measles Rubella vaccine damage compensation claim
Robert Fletcher was 13 months old when he was given the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine (MMR).
Ten days later he suffered a huge fit, and he now suffers from severe epilepsy. He immediately lost all communication skills. And now aged seven, Robert needs 24-hour care, has the attention span of a baby and is still in nappies.
Along with 400 other legally aided children, Robert is now bringing a landmark case against four pharmaceutical companies, alleging that the MMR vaccine has caused serious damage. The drugs companies have denied that the injuries were caused by MMR. The case may be expanded to take action against the Department of Health.
“We are in a David and Goliath battle,” says Robert's mother Jackie Fletcher, “and if the Government took away legal aid it would be like taking away our catapult. We just wouldn't be able to bring the cases.
“None of the parents are after diamond rings or fancy holidays, we just want to give our children decent lives.”
After a wait of six years – and an initial delay of 18 months in winning legal aid – the first 16 cases are expected to open this year.
Solicitor Richard Barr, of Hodge Jones & Allen is representing nearly 2,000 children – some of whom have been awarded legal aid and others who have not – who have suffered damage including autism, epilepsy and bowel disease.
He reinforces the view that without legal aid the case would never have been accepted. “It is an extremely high risk case and the scientific issues involved are very complicated.
“However public-spirited lawyers might be, there is no way they could risk making their firms bankrupt by pursuing cases like this on a no win, no fee basis.”
Barr has been working on the case for six years, and now has a team of 12 lawyers in touch with nearly 70 medical experts worldwide.
Their task is to prove the children were in perfect health before taking the vaccine, that their problems developed reasonably soon after the vaccination was administered, and that the injuries are not coincidental. The case will ultimately involve costs of several hundred thousand pounds.
In many ways the proposed actions against the four drugs firms – SmithKline Beecham, Merck Sharp and Dohme, Pasteur Merieux and The Wellcome Foundation – is more complicated than a medical negligence case (which will continue to enjoy legal aid status).
Patrick Allen, a lawyer who works with Barr, says: “It is unfair that no child will get legal aid for product liability claims, which require as much research and expertise as medical negligence cases – I am baffled by this.”