In January, Stephensons' family law solicitor Tim Galbraith blogged about government proposals for a reform of the legal aid system in England and Wales: Reform of legal aid system. No firm decisions have yet been reached and the outcome has been deferred until after Easter due to the volume of responses to the paper.
Originally the paper confirmed that legal aid would no longer be available for family cases involving divorce and residence and contact disputes unless there were issues of domestic violence. However this was very limited and only included cases where some form of legal action had been started or brought.
In my experience, victims of domestic violence are often fearful of taking legal action or choose not to do so for many different reasons. The original proposals may exclude other types of domestic abuse in addition to physical violence where no legal action has been taken, such as verbal, emotional, sexual or financial abuse. Since Tim’s blog, the legal aid minister, Jonathon Djanogly, has indicated that the government will review the definition of domestic violence.
Legal aid will continue to be available in care proceedings cases, however residence and contact disputes can often involve cases where not just adults are vulnerable but also children due to neglect, drug or alcohol use of the parents and other reasons where the local authority may not have intervened.
I am concerned that parents may be deterred from seeking legal remedies in such cases without legal aid being available.
It is certainly the poorest and most vulnerable groups that will be hardest hit by the proposals. In addition, the House of Commons Justice committee, an influential committee of MPs, has very recently warned that ‘we are concerned that using the presence of domestic violence as a proxy for the most important cases will lead to a perverse incentive to make false allegations of such violence’.
The Committee was clear that if the government is to insist on using domestic abuse as a criteria for people obtaining legal aid it should ensure that the definition ‘incorporates non physical abuse’. The government is warned that the reforms could lead to the Courts being clogged up by vulnerable individuals without representation and advice in preparing their cases, deny justice to individuals concerned and increase the time and expenses necessary to deal with cases at Court. It could increase antagonism between parties because of the absence of independent advice on how to resolve problems.
Campaigning against the cuts is ongoing by many different parts of society. Indeed we as a firm have been lobbying our MPs to seek an alternative to the proposals being put forward, which will allow everyone access to justice.
Members of the public can get involved in the Justice for All campaign which is a coalition of charities, legal and advice agencies, politicians, trade unions, community groups and members of the public. This campaign wants ‘to ensure that everyone is treated fairly under the law, no matter who they are, how much money they have or where they live’. Visit their website to join the campaign: Justice for All
The Law Society has also set up the Sound off for Justice campaign, which is aiming to put pressure on the Government to reconsider the proposed cuts ‘that will deny millions of people with significant legal problems access to legal representation’. You can sign their petition here: Sound off for Justice