Category Archives: Legal Aid

The Changing Tide


child with milk caught in the middle isolated on white


I have recently read a series of articles, which I think are all related to the Government’s legal aid cuts in family law.  The first was how the Government is announcing a £2 million support package for separating couples, the second was how there has been a decrease in cases concerning children as a result of separation or divorce by 25% in September, and the third was about the address made by Simon Hughes that more people are resolving disputes outside the Courts.

As a mediator, it is great to see that the Government are really encouraging mediation, and are really trying to promote the positive benefits of achieving an out of court settlement, in relation to children and/or finances.  As a mediator, there are few cases that are unsuitable for mediation, and this is why the Government feel that everyone should be using it.  The reality is that for some people, it is not the right time.  What the Government have failed to take into consideration is that the breakup of a relationship is really emotional.  People are quite often in different places emotionally, and this makes sitting in a room with the other person really hard.  Quite often, people feel angry or bitter, and this prevents them from being able to make rational and good decisions about their future, and their children’s future.  Sometimes both people feel angry or bitter towards the other, and are simply unable to make decisions together.  Quite often it can take a long time for parents or ex partners to get over a break up.  It is for these people that the Government’s policy regarding legal aid has had the biggest impact.

Mediation is great for some, but is not a panacea that cures all ills, and the Court system is still vital for some families.  It is no surprise that there has been a 25% reduction in September in respect of Children Act applications for a Child Arrangements Order (contact and residence as was).  As a solicitor, I see a lot of clients for the first time, and they are simply not in a position to pay for solicitors to represent them through proceedings.  A lot, I know, will walk away, without seeing their children.  This has a massively damaging impact on the children.

I am pleased that the Government is now using some of the money that it has saved with the legal aid cuts, on supporting separating couples.  I am really proud that in Huddersfield, the local firms all support the Legal Support Service, where a “duty” solicitor speaks to people who are acting without a solicitor and who have a case in Court at that time, to offer them some guidance on how to present their case and what to expect.  The Government are piloting that at certain court centres, with the aim of rolling it out across the country.  The work appears to be done by the Personal Support Unit, LawWorks and Law for Life.  However, whilst this may alleviate the burden on Judges, it still doesn’t go far enough in helping clients to make sensible decisions about their future.  I know that Resolution, the Family Law organisation, was trying to get the Government to fund solicitors offering one advice session, so that at least separating couples were getting some legal advice from the outset.

The other positive thing is that the Government is funding a CAFCASS-run Helpline, for parents wo have been unable to resolve disputes, and want to avoid court battles over their children.   However, it takes two to tango.  If one parent is not in a position to negotiate, or try and make arrangements, the Courts will still be needed to help to sort the situation out.

Sadly, I fear that due to the Government’s policy, and lack of understanding about separation, many children will go without seeing a parent, and many couples will find that they have madeunsuitable agreements about financial issues because they can not afford legal advice.


SOS Family Court

green mazeThe Judicial Executive Board’s evidence to the Commons Justice Select Committee’s enquiry into the effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has just been published.

This shows that there has been a large increase in litigants in person – those who represent themselves – in the private family courts.  This covers cases about where a child should live, and who a child should spend time with and financial divorce settlements.  This is causing the Courts huge administrative problems, and, as predicted by Resolution, could cause massive delays to the Family Court system.

This is at odds with the Government’s stance that the Family Courts performance has not altered since the 2012 Act came in.  This Act decimated the future public funding of family cases.  As a practitioner, I have seen a massive fall in the number of clients who now qualify for legal aid.  These are often vulnerable members of society who can not contemplate dealing with the case themselves.  The Government said that this was covered by “Exceptional case” funding.  Figures from the Legal Aid Agency tell a different story. Less than 2% have been
granted.  In family cases, 617 were applied for and 8 granted – 1.29%.

As a family solicitor and a family mediator, I spend time with people going through a very traumatic time in their lives.  They need the support and advice of someone who is able to help guide them through difficult proceedings.  A lot of clients I have seen since April 2012 haven’t been able to afford fees, but have borrowed rather than facing it alone.  They want someone to be able to give them dispassionate legal advice and guidance.  Myself and most of my colleagues want to help clients avoid court rather than face it, and we give advice about the options available, without involving the Courts.

The Judicial Executive’s Board found that the Judicial perception is that cases where lawyers were not involved are not settling when they should, and these are now taking up valuable court time.

The new changes brought about by the Children and Families Act 2014 makes forms easier to complete, but it doesn’t get rid of the need for good quality sensible advice.