A recent article has highlighted the real life cost of the cuts to legal aid.
Addressing the thorny issue of access to justice, The Guardian introduces readers to a man forced to battle for custody of his children without a family lawyer, as he cannot afford to pay for legal representation.
According to the father, the impact of the cuts has been catastrophic, and he is now battling with “massive depression”.
In April 2013, the government removed legal aid for virtually all family law cases. This means that today, private law services are only available to some victims of domestic violence, and for protective injunction applications (such as a restraining order against an abusive partner).
In this particular case, the man’s ex-partner is receiving advice from a state-funded lawyer having taken out a non-molestation order against him. A move he believes, was designed to ensure she received free legal aid.
Whatever the ins and outs of this situation, what is clear, is that without legal aid, many people are paying hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, for advice they can ill afford. Even more worryingly, others are simply being left without the support of a professional solicitor to protect their rights and represent them through the sometimes complex court process. When you consider the degree of emotion and high stakes usually invested in such circumstances, this is simply unacceptable.
According to the latest figures, over 600,000 people have been excluded from legal aid over the last two years. This is particularly worrying when you consider that according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of divorces in England and Wales is on the rise. To make matters worse, a 2014 independent study published by the University of Exeter has also shown that a staggering 45% of people are completely unaware of the options available to them to help dissolve their marriage out of court.
While the new president of the Law Society (the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales) has stated that the current lack of access to justice “undermines society itself”, unfortunately, it does not appear as if the cuts will be reversed anytime soon. And, while many solicitors are now offering a degree of free legal advice to those who otherwise cannot afford it, this simply isn’t a long-term solution as it does not address the vast and growing gap between provision and need.
So what can you do if you find yourself in need of legal advice in a family law matter?
The Personal Support Unit (PSU) gives free advice to people facing civil court proceedings without legal representation. However, the support offered by this service is not provided by legal professionals. As such, while the PSU goes some way towards plugging a much-needed gap, it does not fill the void created by the cuts, and may not be appropriate in more contentious cases.
In addition to free services and pro-bono legal work, there are also a number of out of court options available to separating couples. These include collaborative law, mediation, and solicitor negotiations. Whilst these relatively new methods of managing divorce and separation in a more conciliatory fashion, still come with a degree of cost, a less contentious approach can help to avoid expensive, and entirely avoidable drawn out proceedings. Just as importantly, choosing a less adversarial method also gives couples the chance to maintain a healthy relationship with their ex-partner, something that can be particularly valuable where there are children involved.
At Linder Myers, our family law solicitors provide expert legal advice for individuals, couples, and families with children, in both same-sex and heterosexual relationships. If you’d like to discuss any of the above, or any other issues relating to family law, please contact us today.Find out more about our Family department