Charlie Gard: Why weren’t family allowed legal aid, asks judge
The parents of eight-month-old Charlie Gard, whose life support has been allowed to be withdrawn following a highly-publicised ruling in court yesterday, were not entitled to legal aid, a fact that the judge found ‘remarkable’.
Connie Yates and Chris Gard were fighting for Charlie’s care to not be withdrawn by doctors from Great Ormond Street Hospital, so that they could take him to the United States for experimental treatment that is not yet available in the UK. They have raised over one million pounds’ worth of public donations in order to pay for this treatment.
However, Mr Justice Francis ruled that this was not in Charlie’s best interests, as Charlie, who suffers from a rare genetic condition called mitochondrial depletion syndrome, is highly unlikely to react positively to such treatment, which could only hope to slightly prolong his very poor quality of life.
Before the court there were three barristers, representing each of the three views of what constituted Charlie’s best interests in the highly emotional case: the hospital, Charlie’s parents, and Charlie himself. However, without legal aid, Charlie’s mum and dad might not have had a voice speaking for them in court at all, had the law firm Bindmans not stepped in to provide pro bono services.
A couple cannot receive legal aid if they have more than £30,804 in annual pre-tax income, £8,796 gross disposable income and £8,000 savings and assets. Whilst they had obviously exceeded this limit, postman Chris and carer Connie have been unable to work for several months whilst caring for their son. Non-means tested legal aid is available in family law cases, but only if the case concerns a child being taken into care or supervision.
After his ruling, Mr Justice Francis, in a break from typical judicial commentary, raised the issue of legal aid in court, asking: ‘Why weren’t the family given legal aid in this case?’
He continued: ‘It seems to me remarkable that in a public law case, where some people get non-means tested legal aid…I can’t think of anything more profound than what the parents are facing here.’
Bob Neill, chairman of the Commons justice committee, has called for the rules to be made more flexible – as reported in the Daily Mail. ‘To apply an ungenerous means test in effect without any regard to the nature of the case and evidence required isn’t fair. The way [legal aid] has been pared back in recent years has gone beyond what is reasonable and it only leads to injustice.’
Eleanor is an aspiring barrister and currently a legal intern with Global Rights Compliance, an organisation committed to enhancing compliance with international human rights standards