MPs and Lawyers Discuss new Legal Aid Laws and Impact on Families
On 2 September the Family Courts Unions Parliamentary Group (FCUPG)
met to discuss the impact of recent government legal aid cuts and changes to Family Law.
The group examined the new laws' implications for Cafcass
, the non-departmental public body which helps children and young people cope with care or adoption proceedings.
Also on the agenda were concerns relating to the increase of people self-representing in court, the impact of court closures, the future of Cafcass and of Child Contact Centres, the new Single Family Court and changes to Family Law introduced in April 2014.
Full Impact of new Laws Unknown
Addressing the group was the CEO of Cafcass, Sir Anthony Douglas, who shared with members how new legal conditions are affecting the running of his organisation. Also present was Simpson Millar LLP's Emma Hopkins-Jones, a specialist in Family Law.
"The full implications of LASPO – the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act
2013 which has been widely-criticised for shredding entitlements to legal aid – are yet to be fully felt," Emma said.
"Yet it is certain that individuals often now arrive in court with no proper legal representation. Where once people would have instructed solicitors to argue their cases on a professional basis
, Cafcass and the judges are now usually the only professionals present."
40,000 Children Helped by Cafcass
Sir Anthony reminded the FCUPG that Cafcass is now annually responsible for 40,000 children. In relation to public law, he said the quality of local authority work was improving, with more being done pre-proceedings to ensure that families can enjoy better outcomes.
However, Sir Anthony acknowledged that because the system of private law is "struggling" it requires the group's full attention.
To date no statistics exist on the precise impact of the legal aid cuts. "However, there's far less mediation, and private law applications are down by at least a quarter
," Emma noted.
The FCUPG expressed concern for the whereabouts of this missing 25%. Also at issue were the reported referrals to CCCs, thought by the National Association of Child Contact Centres to be down by a similar amount.
Sir Anthony conceded that these are currently unknown, but that Cafcass plans to support families by establishing an out-of-court pathway; the decrease in private law applications giving it the time to do so.
More Support for Families – Pilot Approved
To this end a pilot, enabling Cafcass to partner local authorities and providers to support families with local community services, has been approved by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby QC, and Simon Hughes MP.
The group also discussed the increase in people self-representing in court and 'McKenzie friends'
: lay people asked by those without solicitors to sit in on court hearings and lend support. Concerns were raised about the 'professional' nature of paid McKenzie friends, who are unqualified, unregulated and frequently have a political agenda
Fewer Solicitors Leading to Lengthier Hearings
Cafcass statistics for December 2013 proved that in more than half the private law applications relating to children, just one party was represented by a solicitor, with neither party instructing a solicitor in 42% of cases: a figure likely to have since risen
Sir Anthony said while judges once had 8 or 9 cases listed in a day, lengthier hearings due to lack of legal representation for 1 or both parties had reduced the rate to between 3 and 6.
CCCs to be Highlighted in November
Established in 2006, the FCUPG supports people employed in the family justice system. It meets bi-monthly when Parliament is sitting with officers from the Probation and Family Court Union, the PCS union (which acts for court staff) and Family Law solicitors from Simpson Millar LLP.
At the next FCUG sitting, scheduled for November, Elizabeth Coe of the NACCC will discuss the work of Child Contact Centres and its value to the Family Justice System.