Families Denied Justice One Year on from Legal Aid Cuts
Parents and children are being denied justice in the family courts because of cuts to legal aid, unions and solicitors say.
One year on from the removal of a range of civil and family matters from legal aid, probation union Napo, the Public and Commercial Services union that represents courts staff, and family law specialists Simpson Millar LLP Solicitors have set out some of the damaging effects.
In a pamphlet to be launched in parliament on Tuesday the group says solicitors are now having to turn away more than 50% of families who would previously have been eligible for legal aid.
Many victims of domestic abuse are unable to meet the restrictive criteria set by the Legal Aid Agency, the report states. This often means a parent staying in an abusive relationship.
Simpson Millar LLP says all its applications made under the new exceptional case category introduced by the legislation have so far been refused.
The group also cites official figures that show a massive decrease in the number of parents represented by a solicitor:
- Before legal aid was cut, almost one fifth of cases started with both parties having legal representation. Only 18% started with neither party represented, according to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.
- By December 2013, only 4% of cases started with both parties being represented and 42% of cases started with neither having any legal representation.
- The report says the cuts have resulted in more cases being contested, with a 27% increase in applications relating to access and custody, while there has been a 60% drop in publicly funded mediations.
As well as the increase in applications, the lack of representation means cases are ill prepared so hearings are taking longer. This wastes court time and adds to the distress for parents and children. Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence
said: "Not only are our members being put upon to carry out work beyond their roles but children and families are being denied access to justice and that is simply not acceptable. We will continue to campaign to raise awareness of the impact of Grayling's cuts and his continued decimation of the justice system which is now reaching breaking point." PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka
said: "These cuts to legal aid are not only denying justice to families, increasing distress for parents and children, they could end up costing us more because they are putting more pressure on the courts. This is the worst of all possible scenarios and is a direct consequence of this government's blinkered, political obsession with austerity." Emma Pearmaine, head of family and matrimonial at Simpson Millar LLP
said: "The fact that nearly half of people face going to court without any legal representation in family law cases is hugely worrying. The impact on the system and users is obvious – cases take much longer and the added anguish suffered by parents and their children is wholly unacceptable. There are no winners of this reform but the biggest losers are families who are already going through a difficult time; they now face huge barriers to access the help and advice they need."