Pushing parties into mediation in family disputes will encourage badly behaved partners to make ‘excessive demands’, an MP warned in a parliamentary debate on legal aid reform last week.
Labour MP Karen Buck, who tabled an adjournment debate on legal aid that took place last week, also asserted that a Labour government would have sought to protect the civil legal aid budget.
Buck warned against government plans to use mediation as an alternative to the courts in family and children disputes where there are no allegations of domestic violence, which are to be withdrawn from the scope of legal aid.
She said: ‘In relation to family law, no one disputes the value of mediation or the fact that in cases that go to court, the court action can have an extremely damaging impact on the families.
‘However, relying on mediation is not always an option. It is not always the case that both partners are willing to go to mediation. Also, it implies that there is a willingness to compromise, and that the compromise should be somewhere around the middle of the argument about child welfare, maintenance or whatever.’
She added: ‘That ignores the fact that, in many instances, one partner or the other has behaved excessively badly, or is making unrealistic demands; indeed, it encourages them to make such demands’.
Buck cited ‘powerful’ examples provided by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, indicating instances in which mediation would be ‘impossible’.
She added that, ‘even in cases in which domestic violence is not an issue, without legal aid there are real dangers that individuals, particularly those who have difficulty in being sufficiently articulate or confident to navigate the court system, will lose access to their children’.
Buck conceded that the Labour government had made ‘highly controversial’ cuts to the legal aid budget when in power, and that it had ‘intended to go further’ in some areas, including very high cost criminal cases.
However, she said that Labour would have sought to protect the civil budget.
Buck said: ‘Ministers were examining ways in which the civil and social welfare budget could be protected within the global legal aid budget, because it was understood that, in many cases, savings in that area would lead to a false economy’.
During the debate, concerns also emerged over the future of not-for-profit organisations delivering legal aid services. Mark Tami, Labour MP for Alyn and Deeside, said Flintshire Citizens Advice Bureau was ‘very worried’ that it would be losing £170,000, the equivalent of five posts.