Legal Aid Reform in England & Wales

 

On November 15, Kenneth Clark published the government’s proposals for a shake-up of the current public funding arrangements for civil and family law. No more slicing at the edges, he promised, this would be a radical overall that would look at the fundamental principals of Legal Aid.

The proposals are certainly radical, in that as a whole, access to public funding to pursue a family or civil case will be drastically reduced. In the areas where legal aid will still be available, eligibility has been diminished, and those with savings over £1000 will be expected to make a one-off contribution to their costs. The government also proposes that all Legal Aid clients will need to seek telephone advice first through a one-stop gateway, regardless of whether they have a telephone, or whether English is their first language.

Family Law

Currently, there is provision under Legal Aid to represent clients in a wide variety of proceedings including obtaining domestic violence or forced marriage injunctions, contact cases, ancillary relief, care proceedings and child abduction. In addition, we are able to advise and assist clients on topics such as divorce or social services involvement where a client may not need representation but does need help and advice.

The government’s proposals will see a massive reduction in the areas of family law that remain eligible for public funding and stiffer means assessments in the few areas that will remain. The overall impact will see those from all backgrounds excluded not only from courts, but also from solicitors’ offices and advice centres. Only the very poorest, in very limited circumstances, will be eligible for Legal Aid in the future.

The proposals include: removing all private law proceedings from the scope of Legal Aid. Private law proceedings are those which involve individual adults under s8 of the Children Act 1989, without any intervention from the State. It will mean that there will be no Legal Aid to start contact proceedings to see your child if the resident parent does not agree to contact. There will only be Legal Aid to attend mediation and draw up an agreement, but no help if that does not prove fruitful, if an agreement breaks down or even if the other person does not show up! Equally, if you are the parent with day to day care of your child, you may find yourself alone in court while the other parent is able to pay privately for representation to push for more contact with your child or even to change who your child lives with.

It will also mean that there will be no access to legal advice or assistance if the other parent threatens to remove your child and move to another part of the country or even abroad. Legal Aid will only be available after this has already happened through child abduction proceedings, by which time you may not even know where your child has been taken.

Additionally, where there has been domestic abuse, we are able to represent someone through Legal Aid not only for an initial injunction to keep an abusive partner away from them, their home or their family, but also if their abusive partner seeks a divorce, ancillary relief or contact with children. Currently there is no limit on what the abuse was, or when it happened. The definition on domestic abuse is wide and includes financial abuse, verbal abuse and bullying.

Under the Green Paper proposals, a victim of domestic abuse will only be eligible for public funding in other family proceedings where there is a Non-Molestation Order (injunction), or there has been an injunction within the last year, there have been criminal proceedings which result in a conviction. This means that a lot of people will find that they must represent themselves at these proceedings where the other side is their abuser. More seriously, the government’s definition of violence is so narrow that it will only include physical violence, a step which takes us back twenty years or more in tackling violence at home and which contradicts national policy and international law.

These are only a small look at some of changes and how they will affect ordinary people; the proposals are far more wide-ranging than I can hope to cover.

The proposal can be found on the government’s Justice website.

We are very worried about the impact on those people who will find themselves without help or advice, where Law Centres that are also reliant Local Government funding will have to close their doors to these cases.

You can make an impact by writing to your local MP whose details can be found at www.theyworkforyou.com.