Family Law on the front line – what do the Lawyers say?
Simpson Millar are national Law firm with over 150 years of successfully representing the rights of individuals and their families in the UK. We focus on the impact of Laspo on the front line and our concerns about proposed court closures.
Legal Aid and Access to Justice:
Legal Aid has left a black hole in the family legal process. Clients are not eligible for legal aid to secure advice and representation to resolve their family problems unless they are survivors of domestic violence (which requires evidence unobtainable for many) or the local authority have issued care proceedings.
So what is the legal profession doing to fill that hole and maintain access to justice? Michael Gove: Wealthy lawyers should do more free work for the justice system Justice Secretary says the legal profession needs to 'help protect access to justice for all'
At Simpson Millar we have carried out a study to determine how many hours on average per week our family law lawyers work for free. We have discovered that on average each of our lawyers delivers 55mins of non-chargeable legal advice to customers and enquirers per day. Taking account of our part time lawyers, across the country the Simpson Millar family team delivers approx 23.8 hours of free legal advice to the general public every working day. We have now launched our ‘Access to Justice’ service with reduced hourly rates for those who would historically have been eligible for legal aid on a means basis and we have launched fixed fee services and unbundled services to achieve transparency and affordable services to all going forwards.
Is that enough to protect access to justice for all and can we stay in business?
At Simpson Millar we can stay in business despite the challenges in family law by virtue of the fact that we are a large firm offering services across every legal discipline and we can achieve efficiencies of scale. Small firms are struggling and going out of business every day. Lawyers cannot fill the gap more than they are doing and in the interim we continue to turn clients away because even our reduced price services are out of reach. We are still turning away on a month to month basis more than 50% of enquirers who pre-Laspo would have secured legal aid. We estimate we turn away more than 50 legitimate vulnerable enquirers each month who we would previously have represented.
Increasing Court Closures:
The MOJ has released proposals to shut down numerous Courts across England and Wales. The government is consulting on plans to close 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The fear is that the closures will subsequently add further pressure upon any remaining Courts and subsequently will cause a ripple effect of consequences for both professionals and public alike.
Courts under threat include 57 magistrates' courts, 19 county courts, two crown courts, four tribunal hearing centres and nine combined courts. Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service operates 460 courts and tribunal hearing centres.
So what are the anticipated consequences?
- Access to Justice. With cuts to legal aid limiting accessibility to Lawyers for those suffering genuine financial hardship, the court counters are one of the few places members of the public can go to get help and direction for their legal problems. Court closures widen that black hole left by Laspo. Further, issuing court cases and attending before the judiciary will become ever harder because of travel limitations and restrictions faced by many.
- Accessibility: Court closures will mean that the vulnerable public will have to travel out of their local areas to sometimes very unfamiliar surroundings to a Court quite some distance away if their ‘local’ services have now been combined into centralised systems. Financial hardship makes this unaffordable. The elderly, sick and vulnerable are simply not fit enough to travel. Because of the increase in litigants in person, Court resources are already exhausted. How will they cope? It is clear the savings made from the court closures are not being redirected to the remaining courts to empower them to increase their staffing and extend their services.
- Cost: Because of the increase in litigants in person, Court resources are already exhausted. How will they cope? It is clear the savings made from the court closures are not being redirected to the remaining courts to empower them to increase their staffing and extend their services.