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High Court dismisses judicial review claim in relation to legal aid “matter starts”


The High Court has today delivered its judgment in R (JHB Law Ltd (trading as Lawstop) v the Lord Chancellor. This was an application for judicial review in which the Law Society was granted permission to intervene, and which raised what the Court described as a matter of significant importance to legal aid providers – the circumstances in which two “legal help” payments may be recovered in respect of the same client following an initial consultation. 

The Claimant, as a provider of legal aid, was entitled to be paid for its provision of “legal help” to clients who met the relevant financial and merits criteria for the provision of legal aid. Providers exercise a power delegated by their contract with the Defendant to determine whether a client is eligible for legal aid (a decision known as opening a “matter start”). A decision to open a matter start is subject to review by the Legal Aid Agency (“LAA”) in the exercise of powers delegated by the Defendant.

In 2018 the Claimant had opened two matter starts in respect of (relevantly) each of four new clients who had presented to it. In each case, one matter start had been opened in relation to each of the housing law and community care law categories of work. In June 2019 the LAA decided that, in each case, the Claimant had acted in breach of the terms of the contract in opening the community care matter start. The Claimant appealed to the LAA’s independent costs assessor (“ICA”), which dismissed the appeals in February 2022. In these judicial review proceedings the Claimant challenged the ICA’s decisions to dismiss the appeals.

It was common ground that, under the terms of the contract between the parties, a second matter start could only be opened when the client had “more than one separate and distinct legal problem”. The question for the Court was whether the ICA had interpreted and applied that test correctly. Mr Justice Lavender accepted the Defendant’s submissions that the ICA had done so. The ICA had been correct to interpret the relevant contractual provisions as requiring it to ask whether the LAA’s decision to refuse to recognise a second matter start in each case had been a reasonable one. The question of whether a second matter start was justified fell to be determined on the facts and circumstances of the individual cases, consideration of which was necessary to identify whether more than one separate and distinct legal problem had arisen. The ICA’s reasoning in the individual cases disclosed no such error.

The Lord Chancellor had not, therefore, acted unlawfully in refusing to make a second “legal help” payment in the cases before the Court and the claim was accordingly dismissed.

The judgment is here.

Malcolm Birdling and Josh Pemberton acted for the Lord Chancellor, instructed by the Government Legal Department.