There have been a number of news reports today concerning the grant of legal aid to the father of Poppi Worthington, who was named by a judge as having sexually assaulted his daughter before she died. They are in very similar terms in (for example) The Times and The Metro. The general tone is an expression of concern / outrage that large sums of money should have been made available to someone who has been found to have committed a terrible act on a child.

The reports state that Mr Worthington “has received £117,000 in legal aid for care proceedings relating to his other children…with taxpayers footing the bill” and remind the reader that he “was identified in court this year as having sexually assaulted his 13-month-old daughter shortly before her sudden death in 2012. He was arrested but not charged and has denied any wrongdoing. A new inquest into Poppi’s death is to take place next month.”

The reports talk about Poppi’s father being “awarded legal aid for proceedings related to Poppi’s siblings, who were taken into care ten months after her death.” Whilst The Times correctly refers to “care proceedings” the Metro refers to a “bid for custody”.

However, having correctly identified the case as “care proceedings” The Times goes on to say that “Many other families get no money to fund family court cases because of legal aid cuts, with many having to act in person rather than hire lawyers.”

The reports quote John Woodcock, the MP for Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, who “said he was shocked by the sums. “These mounting bills are more evidence we need to get to the truth as quickly as possible,” he said.” It is unclear whether Mr Woodcock is the person who made the FOI request through which it is said the figures were obtained or whether some other person – perhaps a journalist – made the request (it’s not immediately obvious to me that this information is actually susceptible to an FOI request).

So what’s wrong with these reports?

Many people will be surprised or offended to hear that someone who has been found by a court to have seriously abused their child should be entitled to large amounts of legal aid. But it is important to remember that at the start of a case involving allegations of this sort (sexual abuse) the court is presented with lots of evidence, some suggesting guilt and some suggesting innocence. At the outset and until the trial of the facts has taken place the court does not know whether or not this is an abusive father denying his guilt or an innocent father caught up in a nightmare. In Poppi’s case that process took a very long time.

The majority of the money spent will have been spent on establishing whether or not Mr Worthington abused Poppi. The court has concluded he did (on balance of probabilities). [Update : For an example of another complicated case which involved very serious allegations and which took a long time and cost a lot of public money, but where the process led to the parents being cleared of all wrongdoing see L B Islington v Al Alas and Wray – the vitamin D and rickets case].

It is important to state that ALL parents involved in care proceedings (that is cases which are started by social services because they want to intervene in a family because of child protection concerns) are entitled to legal aid – no matter what their income is, no matter what they are accused of and no matter what their background. This is rare in legal aid – and is in place because the court has the power to take away children and permit their adoption. There are few orders more serious. If a local authority wishes to intervene in any family – your family, my family, the Worthington family – it must PROVE this is justified rather than parents proving their innocence – and all parents are entitled to legal advice and representation to deal with that – because social services might have got it wrong.

Most care proceedings cases would not involve anything like the sort of money that has been spent on the Worthington case. The Worthington case has involved an extraordinary number of hearings, including two fact finding hearings, a high number of expensive experts and a number of novel points of law. Sums of £117,000 for a care case are not typical.

Mr Worthington will continue to be entitled to legal aid until the end of the case. One might speculate that he is very unlikely to have any child in his care in the near future, but he is still entitled to have his say about what should happen to them – for example to say what he thinks about their adoption if that is the plan put forward, what and when they should be told about events. The court may not agree with him or not attach much weight to his views, but they must be taken into account.

Legal aid in care cases is automatic and “non-means” “non-merits” tested. This means that nobody has to make a decision or moral judgment about whether a particular parent is worthy of legal aid in this sort of case because the law says they are entitled to that help simply because the state is interfering in their private family life. In that sense there has been no “award” to be horrified by. This is a general law that from time to time operates to give legal aid to some very nasty people (for example a father who has murdered the mother of the children would still be entitled to legal aid).

In a separate type of case, that is “private law proceedings” which are disputes between parents about where a child should live or when they should see a parent (often inaccurately called “custody” disputes) – there is very limited legal aid available. In these cases only the victims of domestic abuse or a “protective parent” is entitled to legal aid – and even then only if they are on a very low income and their case is sufficiently strong. There has been a lot of criticism for these restrictions on legal aid in this sort of case because parents can be accused of really serious and horrible things by another parent and not have a lawyer to help them, but Poppi’s case was not this sort of case because social services were bringing the case and making the allegations.

So, the Metro wrongly describes this as a custody case, and when The Times talks about parents having to act without lawyers they are talking about private law not “care” proceedings. A parent who is faced with social services removing their child and taking them away from all their family is ALWAYS entitled to legal advice and representation, even if they have done something very bad. It would be unfortunate if these reports or others like them gave vulnerable parents the impression that this was not the case.

NB This post assumes that Mr Worthington is the father of the remaining children involved in the care proceedings.