Removing legal aid for private family cases could lead to thousands of children losing contact with a parent and many families being left dependant on welfare benefits, family lawyers warn today.
In a renewed attack on provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) bill, which resumes the process of scrutiny by the Lords tomorrow, Resolution, a group representing family lawyers, has voiced concern about potentially ‘devastating’ consequences.
A survey of members showed widespread concern about clients losing the right to legal aid: 87% of the 267 respondents said that fewer than 25% of their current clients would qualify for legal aid if the bill is enacted.
More than half (57%) of the respondents believed the change would create the risk of a parent losing contact with their child in at least half of cases. Based on the surveyed lawyers alone, this would amount to 4,000 children a year.
The bill withdraws legal aid from many parents trying to get back children who have been abducted within the UK, which 91% of those surveyed said was a risk in some of their cases.
Resolution’s chair David Allison said: ‘Many of those currently eligible for legal aid would seriously struggle to obtain the legal advice and support that could ensure that they continue to see their children after a difficult separation.’
Allison said the changes risk increasing the nation’s benefits bill, as parties, who without legal advice would be unaware of their financial entitlement, may be left dependent on welfare benefits.
Family lawyers were also concerned that the government’s drive to steer parties towards mediation could leave many disadvantaged.
Nearly all respondents (94%) were concerned that 75% of their clients would not be able to reach a settlement without legal advice and would not know if a settlement was fair.
Those surveyed highlighted the benefit of legal advice, with 42% saying it meant that at least half their cases settled without going to court, while 74% thought their ability to negotiate with the other party meant at least half their cases settled before the final hearing.
In any event, of the current legal aid cases of those surveyed, 41% had been assessed as unsuitable for mediation.
Allison said: ‘We are concerned that by focusing so heavily on mediation, the government will punish those for whom it simply won’t work through no fault of their own - for example, if they have an abusive or uncooperative partner.’
He urged the government to rethink the cuts and reconsider other measures, such as extending the statutory charge to cover other areas of family law, to ensure access to justice.