Speak it not to the Law Society, broadcast it not to the justice secretary, but the tide may just have turned. Nothing is ever missed so much as when it is gone, and family legal aid is well and truly a shadow of its former self.
The fight is lost – there is no appetite in government to put the clock back. The press is finally on to the criminal damage done to the legal aid system, but frankly it is a bit too late for tears.
With just 8% of practitioners now involved, mostly beavering away in the murky backwaters of care (which, though worthy, is a mere distraction from public need) a mighty hole has opened up.
As a retired lawyer, and with the benefit of hindsight, this is nothing short of a tragedy and a totally avoidable one. Perhaps, however, it is time for some mild reflection on how things used to be.
For more than 60 years, in one form or another, we lawyers enjoyed the benefits of a legal aid system that supported family law. We made a living of sorts out of it and the public benefited hugely from our dedication.
Notwithstanding the fact that successive lord chancellors have done their best to meddle and frustrate, the profession kept going through thick and thin. We braved endless and pointless changes of regulations, forms, conditions, franchises, delays in payment and petty obstructions from the Legal Services Commission or whatever it chose to call itself.
We put up with years of pay freezes (for which read cuts in real terms) that would have driven any self-respecting trade union on to the streets – but of course we didn’t have one, did we?
This is all now water under the bridge. But all actions have consequences; some of them unexpected.
Suddenly, faced with litigants in person floundering around without a clue, causing delays and extra cost to the system, the judiciary is coming to appreciate that lawyers kept control and actually helped their clients.
The public, in turn, is at last coming to recognise that family law is not just something you play about with like a toy, or learn from the internet. It requires skill, experience and judgement.
Despite every effort by elements of the press to denigrate us, family lawyers are beginning to be looked upon with respect, because they are needed. And where there is a real need, the public will find a way to pay for our services, one way or another. It is just a pity that this had to happen.
The labourer is worthy of his hire, and as ever we shall do our best for our client.
John Greenwood, Chippenham, Wilts