Why legal aid was the only option when I divorced

Changes to qualification criteria for legal aid in England and Wales mean hundreds of thousands of people will now be unable to get financial help with their divorce and custody battles.

The BBC News website has spoken to two people who have been through divorces, one paid for by legal aid, the other funded from their own pocket.

Brenda Shawky, from St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, was divorced about a year and a half ago.

She had been married to her Egyptian-born husband for 15 years but they were leading separate lives and arguing all the time.

"Things were just getting unbearable," she recalled. "We were under a lot of financial pressure, and the cultural differences between us didn't help. I decided I had had enough."

Ms Shawky, a full-time student, had heard about the planned government cuts to legal aid and was concerned about the financial implications of divorce.

"When I first thought about divorce, I was really worried about whether I could afford it or not. My husband was not very good at giving me money for the household, so he was not going to pay and my relatives could not help me out.

"I visited the Citizens Advice Bureau, who put me in touch with a solicitor, and they told me that legal aid was still available, but only just, so I made haste.

"Legal aid was essential. I had no other way out. Everything was getting on top of me and my health was suffering. I was concerned about how all the arguing was affecting my teenage son."

'List of rules'

Ms Shawky did not have to pay a penny towards her divorce, but she says she received the "bare minimum" service from the solicitors.

"I think they had a maximum of about £900 to spend on my case, so they were keeping the costs down. They didn't call me much and the whole process took about a year."

The couple did not own their home, so dividing the assets was not an issue. The solicitor referred them to a mediator, who helped them come up with a plan.

"We had a couple of sessions, which legal aid paid for. She did not take sides and looked at all our options. As neither of us had a lot of money, we decided that my husband would continue to live in the house with us. It was also good for our son to have his father around.

"The mediator helped us draw up a list of rules and it is working reasonably well."

Ms Shawky acknowledges that people will think it weird that they are still living together, but she says they had no other option.

"Neither of us are well-off. His job has been up and down and he cannot afford to move out. This way, he has his own room, pays half the rent and buys his own food. I hardly see him."

If legal aid had not been available, she would not have been able to divorce her husband and get on with her own life, she said.

"I know you can do these DIY divorces over the internet but I would not feel comfortable doing that.

"Everyone should be able to have access to some legal representation."

This is a fear shared by many legal professionals. Both the Law Society and the Bar Council say the changes mean access to justice is no longer being adequately funded and vulnerable people will suffer.

Last month, the UK's most senior judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger, warned: "My worry is the removal of legal aid for people to get advice about law and get representation in court will start to undermine the rule of law."

Trivial matters

But the government says the legal-aid system is among the most expensive in the world and is costing taxpayers too much at a time when resources are limited - hence the removal of some qualification criteria.

"We need to make sure taxpayers' money is not spent resolving too many disputes in court, when there are quicker, cheaper and less stressful options available," said a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman.

And James Amos is someone who knows just how expensive divorces can be.

Mr Amos, who lives in Salisbury and owns his own business, divorced three years ago.

He was not eligible for legal aid and estimates the legal fees, court costs and settlement amounted to £650,000.

"My legal fees were £50,000 and I also paid my wife's, which were £40,000. She also got £400,000 in the settlement, plus spousal and child maintenance every month. I obviously do not mind paying the child maintenance. It took about a year to sort everything out but it is still ongoing."

He said sorting out the divorce was a "nightmare" at the time and it was still a "headache" today.

"I do believe that the lawyers are there to make money," he said. "My ex-wife's lawyer told her not to discuss any matters of the divorce with myself, and only talk to her. I do feel this didn't help us sort matters out ourselves and only increased costs to lawyers."

The 58-year-old said he would receive letters and emails, which all cost money, over the most trivial of things.

A couple of letters between the solicitors about him not being allowed to clear out his ex-wife's possessions from under the bed cost £500.

"The whole thing got out of hand and everything had to go through the lawyers. At first, we realised it had got to the stage where we had to get divorced, but it got complicated.

"Two of our daughters wanted to stay with me, while the other was too young and had no say."

He said there were three court hearings and at the last barristers were involved.

Mr Amos has to go back to court to have an order amended.

But this time he is thinking about representing himself to cut the expense.

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