MPs, judges and expert practitioners yesterday condemned the government’s planned legal aid cuts and family justice reforms, warning that the fiscal imperative driving them will harm children.
Plaid Cymru MP and barrister Elfyn Llwyd said the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which from April removes public funding for most private family cases, will ‘change the whole landscape of family law’.
Llwyd told a seminar on the future of family justice: ‘The changes are likely to be detrimental to families, detrimental to access to justice and probably contrary to article 6 rights and others which come into play when a fair trial of issues is not afforded.’ He told delegates at the event, organised by the Westminster Legal Policy Forum, that the changes will not achieve the costs savings claimed by the government.
In his 20-year parliamentary career, LLwyd said that he had never seen such ‘intransigence’ from government than during the bill’s passage. He said: ‘This was a bad bill, it remains a bad bill and, unless some sensible government appraisal is urgently undertaken, the consequences for society at large and vulnerable families in particular are going to be little short of catastrophic.’
The removal of legal aid, he said, will leave courts ‘inundated’ with litigants in person and ‘curtail or undermine’ the principle of paramountcy of the welfare of the child as parents struggle to put across their points across in court. The result, he said would be a ‘huge surge’ in demand for court time with extra cost and delay - at a time when the government is also seeking to impose time limits in care proceedings. ‘How can they work against this most unfortunate backcloth?’ he said.
Llwyd said more use of mediation, the government’s proposed solution to problems, is not a silver bullet, and will not work for the vast majority of cases.
Aside from the impact of the legal aid cuts, speakers expressed concern over some of government’s planned initiatives to reform family justice, in particular, the imposition of a 26-week timetable for care proceedings.
District judge Nicholas Crichton, who set up London’s pioneering Family Drug and Alcohol Court, said the target was ‘helpful as an aspiration’ but questioned how many cases would realistically be resolved in 26 weeks. He said the focus should not be about timelines but ‘outcomes for children’ and warned ‘we’re heading for disaster’ if the time limit is treated as a ‘straightjacket’.
Chair of the Family Law Bar Association Nicholas Cusworth QC, said the ‘financial imperative’ driving the reforms will cause children to suffer and warned that the ‘over-emphasis on speed carries real dangers’. Both called for the appointment of more judges to improve continuity.
Crichton supported mediation information sessions in so far as they may reduce the number of cases going to court, but criticised the removal of legal aid in private law. ‘We have too many people going to court for the wrong reasons. If we take away their legal aid they will come to court unbridled and without the benefit of legal advice,’ he said. ‘Petty problems’ are already a burden, he said. ‘I don’t want to spend half a day disputing whether a child should be picked up at the police station or McDonalds.’
Plans to introduce into legislation a concept of shared or cooperative parenting were criticised by most, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, as unnecessary and against the best interests of children.
Crichton said that courts already try to ensure children maintain relationships with both parents. He saw no problem including the concept in the welfare checklist, but said there should be no reference to the words ‘equal’ or ‘shared’. To do so, he said would lead to ‘20 years of litigation’ as parents seek to enforce rights that they think they have.