Ahead of the legal aid cuts due to take effect today, family law practitioners have reiterated concerns that vulnerable people will be left without proper legal advice and support during divorce.
Resolution, the country’s largest association of family law practitioners, has repeatedly warned of the devastating effects of the legal aid cuts, which will result in 200,000 people a year being denied access to justice. Legal aid will remain available to support many victims of domestic violence and a further limited number of people for mediation, which Resolution supports as a non-court based approach to resolving family disputes.
However, mediation is not a one-size-fits-all solution: for it to be successful, both parties need to agree to engage. Where one party is not willing, there is no support available. As a result, many people will be forced to represent themselves, sometimes in court (known as ‘litigants in person’), acting without legal advice.
Speaking on the day that changes to the legal aid regime come into force, Resolution’s Chair, Liz Edwards, said:
“Our members know from experience that most clients do not know what kind of financial settlement they are entitled to or have to provide.
This is essentially a false economy, as the weaker partner is left with an inadequate settlement and is pushed into reliance on benefits, shifting the costs to other areas of public spending. This will ultimately place a greater burden on the public purse.
These cuts fail families and run counter to the government’s stated aim of putting children and families at the heart of policy. The effects will be particularly damaging for the children in divorce cases, particularly those from poor backgrounds."
Divorce and separation is always a difficult time but it need not be long, drawn out and excessively expensive. There are constructive and affordable ways to reach agreement and Resolution members can help separating families focus on the needs of the children and keep disputes out of the courtroom.
The Legal Services Commission (which is being abolished and replaced with the Legal Aid Agency as of today) has indicated that there will be strict limits on a legal aid firm’s ability to take on work beyond that initially allocated. People who remain eligible for legal aid may therefore experience difficulty locating a legal aid lawyer to represent them as fewer practitioners are able to provide legal aid. Access to justice risks becoming a postcode lottery.
While Resolution and other leading organisations successfully convinced the government to ensure that victims of domestic violence will still be able to access proper legal advice, victims still face many hurdles. They will be expected to present evidence in support of their claim but for many this may not be practically possible. Fees may also be charged to provide some types of evidence, for example a GP’s report, placing additional financial pressures on domestic abuse sufferers.