The head of the family courts has warned the Legal Services Commission that he has been ‘inundated’ by family judges expressing serious concerns over the outcome of the family legal aid tender, in a letter seen by the Gazette.
Lord Justice Wall has written to the LSC’s chief executive Carolyn Downs warning that if the commission chooses to ignore the concerns of the family judges who understand the system so well, it will do so ‘at its peril’.
Wall quoted one judge in Wales who has expressed alarm at the ‘horrendous prospect of inexperienced practitioners taking over this heavy work’, and warned of a potential rise in litigants in person.
Wall, who is president of the Family Division, quoted the concerns of the family judge as ‘but one example’ of what he had been told.
The unnamed judge had told Wall: ‘I have been approached by well-respected practitioners in the family law field who are shattered to find that they have been turned down [for a legal aid contract].
‘I have been told of 10 local firms (in Cardiff and Newport) whose contracts will expire on 14 October after which they cannot take further legal aid family work. All 10 are firms that are the mainstay of the administration of family justice in this area, staffed by experienced and reliable practitioners who are able to process the work competently and efficiently. Some of them do nothing but family work.
‘I have also been told of three firms that have been awarded contracts and are, by contrast, firms that do little or none of the heavy care work (for example) and it is difficult to see how they could possibly cope with what will be a deluge of work. The result is that this area will be grossly under-supplied with firms to support an overall population approaching one million.’
The unnamed family judge added: ‘Quite apart from the horrendous prospect of inexperienced practitioners taking over this heavy work and being inundated with work that would previously have been distributed among many more firms, with the resulting delays, there is the prospect of far more litigants in person, as there simply will not be enough firms around to cope with the multi-party cases that we commonly experience in heavier care cases.’
Wall said he had sent a message to all the designated family judges expressing his confidence in their ability to act appropriately in supporting individual firms’ appeals to the LSC against a decision not to award a legal aid contract.
Wall continued in his letter: ‘I make the point to you [Carolyn Downs] as strongly as I can – and invite you to make it known more widely, that my judges know what they are talking about. They work day in and day out in this field, and the commission will ignore what they say at its peril.
‘Thus if we end up with an unworkable system, or a system operated by those who are inexperienced and/or do not fully know what they are doing, everyone will lose out.
‘The principal losers, of course, will be those whom the system is most designed to protect, namely vulnerable families and children. Cases will take longer, there will be many more litigants in person, and there is a grave danger that the system will simply implode.’
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson has also written to the LSC, calling on it to suspend the outcome of the tender until It has conducted an ‘urgent’ review.
It is understood that the LSC will respond to both Wall and Hudson in due course.
Click here for the full interview with LSC chief executive Carolyn Downs.