Family legal aid – is there still access to justice?

I have just been reading a ‘Survivors Forum’ on the Women’s Aid website. In relation to the legal aid cuts, one victim of domestic violence said “Don’t see the point in struggling any more. Might as well chuck in my job and go back to him”. This is a worrying statement indeed.

After the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force on 1 April 2013, women’s rights groups published a report showing 47% of domestic abuse victims took no action in relation to their family problem as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid.

Clearly many feel that all is lost, but is it really as bad as all that? It is true that legal aid for private family cases has been the subject of drastic government cuts.

However, legal aid is still available in the following situations:

  • Public Law cases – For parents and other relatives where a local authority is involved regarding a child because of child protection concerns. If court proceedings have been, or are about to be issued, legal aid may be available on a non-means tested basis.
  • Domestic Abuse cases – For people who have experienced domestic abuse, defined as “any incident, or pattern of incidents, of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (whether psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between individuals who are associated with each other”. Written proof is required to confirm that someone has been or is at risk of domestic abuse, e.g. a letter or report from (a) a health professional; (b) a refuge; or (c) social services. Alternatively, evidence of police or previous court involvement may assist. Whilst the definition of domestic abuse is wide-ranging, many victims are unable to meet the restrictive criteria set by the Legal Aid Agency in order to receive legal aid.
  • Child Abuse cases – For people who need advice for children issues where there is a child at risk of abuse. Similar written proof is required as for domestic abuse cases.
  • Exceptional cases – For those difficult cases that would be affected by the removal of legal aid. This was introduced by the government to avoid breaches of the Human Rights Act. However, only a few cases have satisfied the ‘exceptional’ criteria.
  • Mediation – For people who are financially eligible. Legally aided mediation may cover finance and property issues, as well as children issues. Solicitors can also provide a limited level of service to support people going through this process. However, mediation is not suitable for all cases, including instances where there is a point requiring adjudication or an imbalance of power between the parties.

So whilst the position may not be as bad as the general public think, the legal aid reforms have still had many consequences.

As fewer people are able to access legal aid, more are forced to represent themselves.

Are those people more likely to give up seeking a satisfactory conclusion to their problem than those who are legally represented? My experience suggests the answer to that question is yes. This means that more and more separated families are living with unresolved disputes. This is unacceptable and could have long term implications on the well-being of the parties and their children.

Family Lawyers group Resolution has launched a survey of its members on how the cuts have affected the service firms can deliver. We will know more towards the end of the year.

In the meantime, many practitioners and firms have started to offer fixed fee or pay-as-you-go packages to give people more access to justice.

Here at Leonard Gray LLP, we offer a variety of fixed fee packages to try and reduce the impact of the government cuts on our clients. Services range from free half hours, to an initial review of the case, to fixed fee divorces or financial agreements. Please do not hesitate to contact Sarah Orrell or Carol Cunningham on 01245 504904 to discuss this further.

Sarah Orrell
Sarah is a family lawyer with a reputation for clear, straightforward advice. She specialises in divorce, financial settlements, separation and pre-nuptial agreements and cohabitation disputes. Sarah also heads up the Leonard Gray Emergency Services Legal Team.

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