Legal aid changes deny access to justice, says Law Society

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Media captionLegal aid costs taxpayers about £2bn every year

Changes in the legal aid system have denied many parents access to justice, the Law Society has said.

The new set up, introduced last April, means many people who would have previously qualified for free legal advice, no longer do.

A Wales-based solicitor said the structure and support framework needed for successful mediation was not in place.

But the UK government said legal aid was safeguarded for those most in need.

Legal aid costs taxpayers about £2bn every year.

In the family court, legal aid remains available in certain circumstances, such as where domestic violence can be proven.

BBC Wales was allowed access to a family court where a mother, who was denied legal aid, represented herself in a custody dispute because she could not afford a lawyer.

However, her partner, received legal aid because he applied before the changes had been made.

She said: "I was frightened to death but at the same time I felt enough is enough, I can't go on using a solicitor and the bills were running up so, obviously, I had to bring it to an end really and do things myself.

"My stomach was going, churning, everything is going through your head - it's going to bad for you, it's going to go good for you, you don't know what to expect."

She said the new system was unfair.

"If I can't be represented then why should the father?" she said.

"It should be fair play on both ends. If one side is being represented by a solicitor or a barrister, I think that is really wrong.

"You just keep your fingers crossed and just do your best. What else can you do? You can't do any more than that." 

Solicitor Dylan Lloyd-Jones, from Llangefni on Anglesey and a member of the Law Society's Wales committee, has been concerned over the changes.

"In many cases it is causing people to turn away from the justice system, which in effect is denying them access to justice," he said.

"There was an intention once the changes came in, that mediation would be the saviour of all involved in the family court system. Sadly it hasn't worked."

'Vulnerable people'

Mr Lloyd-Jones said the structure and support framework needed for successful mediation has not been put in place by the UK government.

He also denied the Law Society's opposition to the changes were motivated by solicitors seeking to continue to be paid via the legal aid system.

"Solicitors are losing income yes, but the vast majority of solicitors who are concerned with the family justice system are not doing it with a view of financial gain," he said.

"They are representing the most vulnerable women, men and children in the most difficult of situations."

He said the old system gave all parties a fair hearing.

"At the moment the legal aid changes are meaning that that simply is not happening," he added.

"These cases are now taking far longer to be dealt with by the court and things are being said in court inevitably by litigants in person, that are having consequences outside the court."

But Justice Minister Shailesh Vara said: "It is simply untrue to suggest that it is more difficult to access protection. Access to legal aid and the courts for protective injunctions is identical to the position prior to our reforms.

"We have enormous sympathy for people involved in these types of cases. In many cases legal aid is not needed for the case to be brought before a court."

Legal aid costs the taxpayer almost £2bn a year and as a result, Mr Vara said, "tough decisions" needed to be made.

"Family mediation works and we are committed to making sure that more people make use of it, rather than go through the confrontational and stressful experience of going to court," he said.

"Millions of pounds of legal aid remains available to pay for mediation for anyone eligible and we are changing the law so separating couples must in future consider mediation instead of becoming embroiled in courtroom battles."

He added there had always been a high number of people representing themselves in court and this was "not a new issue" for the courts.

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