Families 'hit by legal aid plans'

Divorce generic Divorce cases could change significantly if the proposed changes are given the go-ahead

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Thousands of vulnerable people facing family breakdown could end up without legal representation because of planned changes to legal aid, according to a legal group.

The Family Law Bar Association says proposed changes to legal aid in England and Wales could slow and cause difficulties in divorce hearings.

The government wants to cut £350m a year from the £2.2bn legal aid bill.

Plans would see areas such as family advice cut from this public funding.

The government believes the proposed changes will encourage more people into mediation and out of the courtroom.

Mediation

Tom (not his real name) was left deeply in debt and cut off from his young children when his marriage broke down.

He could not afford a lawyer, so agreed to sign on for legal aid.

"My divorce and the break-up of my marriage left me very heavily in debt," he said.

"I was told the only option I had was to go bankrupt. If I had any savings they had to go to to pay my debts, so I could not have afforded a solicitor and I would not been able to fight my ex-wife in court and get to see my children again."

Under the proposals, legal aid would no longer be an option for most divorcing couples. They would have to enter mediation, represent themselves in court, or find some other way to fund or resolve their differences.

Only those affected by domestic violence, forced marriage or child abduction would have access to legal aid.

'Slower process'

Some 250,000 cases of divorce and family breakdown receive legal aid a year, according to figures from Citizens Advice. If the proposed changes were given the go-ahead by MPs, this would reduce to about 40,000 cases, the charity said.

Nicholas Cusworth Nicholas Cusworth believes that courts might find it difficult to reach a fair outcome

Nicholas Cusworth QC, president of the Family Law Bar Association, said he was concerned that without access to specialist advice many more people could end up representing themselves in court.

"I think people who feel the brunt of the new bill are wives whose husbands can afford to pay for representation, but who cannot pay themselves," he said.

"So, in future, they will be acting in person, unrepresented, in front of the court without advice.

"Certainly it will mean the court process will be slowed down. Litigants will come before the court ill-prepared. If you have a large number of women who should be receiving support from their husbands and do not get that support because the court has not be able to assess a fair outcome, they may become a burden on the state."

On Tuesday, Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, announced that victims of domestic violence would be given greater access to legal aid to fund civil cases against abusive partners.

Start Quote

Inevitably if we see smaller role for legal aid funded work there will be pressure in the market for that gulf to be filled”

End Quote Adam Sampson Legal Ombudsman

However, he added that he would not be making any further concessions.

"We have moved in key areas beyond where we were and we have to insist that is where we will end," he said.

"There comes a point where we will forget what the object of this is. We do want more of these cases not to be conducted by lawyers financed by the taxpayer engaging in adversarial litigation about where children are going to live, what maintenance should be paid by one party or the other, or what share of the matrimonial home is going to be owned by one party or the other."

Divorce websites

The market for legal advice is changing fast. People who are worried about paying an hourly rate can soon go to providers which will offer legal advice for a one-off fee.

The legal ombudsman, Adam Sampson, is worried people may end up paying for poor quality services.

"Inevitably if we see smaller role for legal aid funded work there will be pressure in the market for that gulf to be filled," he said.

"We are already seeing the growth of divorce websites and low-cost, high volume products and that will accelerate. That may make law much more affordable but it carries huge risk with it as well."

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