Hang your head in shame, Mr Grayling. Whisper it abroad – financial (ancillary) relief is dead, except for the wealthy. They can argue at great legal expense over their millions. A major consequence of the virtual demise of legal aid is that it has left victims trailing in its wake.
Here is a typical case, one that family lawyers regularly dealt with on legal aid: a sad, abandoned wife trailing three young children, the husband unable to face up to the responsibilities of a young family. Maybe he is on his own, more likely with a younger partner.
She struggles with a part-time job. He (sometimes) pays the mortgage on the modest home and, when he feels like it, gives a little money for the children. She needs legal help urgently to secure the home for the family’s future, seek some maintenance if she can and, if the husband has a pension worth anything, to claim a share of it. She has no recourse to borrowing to pay a lawyer privately and no hope of raising a loan without obvious collateral.
It is exactly the same for an abandoned wife of a member of the armed forces, where the pension pot is very important and a share in it is vital for the future. In these cases it is a waste of time expecting the spouse to co-operate with mediation. Spending the £100 fee is a waste of money. So these wives have no hope of help, and no idea how to start applying to the court.
How has this situation come about? On legal aid, the wives would have been helped: to obtain an order that the house not be sold until the last child had finished education; and to obtain a pension sharing order and possibly some maintenance.
The legal aid costs would have been charged against the equity in the house to be paid when it is eventually sold (in the meantime carrying a punitive 8% interest).
I wonder why the government has never come clean about the ‘statutory charge’ to recover legal aid costs? We have no statistics to compare the actual cost of these cases to the legal aid fund, measured against the amount the Treasury has recovered from the statutory charge after the sale of the house. Of course, it would not have been politically expedient to reveal this at a time when the government had the national press on a merry witch-hunt against the so-called ‘fat cat lawyers’. I knew hundreds doing this low-paid work and I never saw them getting fat on it.
Ah, some may argue, but what about domestic abuse, including financial abuse? Could this housewife not go to her GP and try to argue this for a chance of legal aid? This is a long shot once she discloses that the husband is paying the mortgage and coughing up other bits and pieces from time to time.
This appears to be an area that has conveniently ‘slipped under the radar’ for the government. And, incidentally, why have the Liberal Democrats and Labour – champions of the ‘underdog’ – been so reluctant to champion legal aid in financial or other cases?
And what about the children? Are they not the ones likely to suffer most? Can one not envisage a wife in the situation set out above, having to swallow her pride and resort to food banks?
It is all very regrettable, particularly in an area of family law where there is no evidence that the Treasury actually loses financially by backing these deserving, abandoned spouses.
John Greenwood, Chippenham, Wilts