Family barristers have warned of a ‘bleak’ future for family justice if the government’s legal aid cuts are implemented as planned.
At a national meeting last weekend, the Family Law Bar Association said the reforms set out in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will result in 54,000 fewer people being represented in the family courts each year, and affect 68,000 children at the centre of family breakdowns.
Chair Stephen Cobb QC said the cuts will place the family justice system under great strain as unrepresented individuals, some suffering from mental health problems and the effects of domestic violence, attempt to represent themselves in court.
Judges will cease to become arbiters, said Cobb, but will become directly engaged in the eliciting of evidence; and an ‘influx of DIY litigants’ will cause added delays in court listings for both private and public law cases.
He said the government’s assertion that more cases will be resolved by mediation is not borne out by the experience of senior lawyers and judges.
‘The proposals for legal aid reform will have a serious and damaging impact on the functioning of the family courts,’ he added.
Cobb said the Ministry of Justice is ignoring its own research on the impact of litigants in person in the courts, which shows that this leads to delays and poorer case outcomes.
In addition, the FLBA voiced concerns about the narrow definition of domestic abuse in the bill and the restricted circumstances in which the government is proposing that abuse can be proved, before legal aid is granted.
The FLBA called on the government to ensure that public funds are available (subject to eligibility) for legal advice and representation for all parties in cases where: a child has been joined as a party; the court is considering making findings of harm or abuse; or where the court is considering making a Section 37 direction (regarding the making of a court report prior to care or supervision orders) or a Section 38 order (for residential assessment of a child).
It will also press the government to reconsider the rules for funding cases involving domestic violence.
Cobb said: ‘If the government pushes through its proposed cuts to legal aid, the future for family justice looks bleak.’