The most significant and drastic changes to the Legal Aid System since its commencement are due to take effect from 1st April 2013. Following a protracted period of debate, the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill has now been passed through Parliament and will result in the withdrawal of approximately 80% of existing Family Legal Aid. There will no longer be Legal Aid available to obtain a divorce or to assist with dealing with a financial settlement arising from separation and divorce or to deal with private children disputes between parents for residence or contact.
The general public have been allowed to sleepwalk through these pending changes without any realisation of the effects of the Act. There are many thousands of people each year who obtain assistance from Solicitors in dealing with their relationship breakdowns and as a result of the above Act, except for exceptional circumstances, there is no longer Legal Aid to assist.
These cuts are likely to leave many people unable to afford to seek legal advice. This may result in an increase in unfair settlements being achieved, both in relation to finances and children matters, purely because they cannot afford to be adequately represented. The Courts are already seeing a sharp rise in the number of individuals acting in person in family proceedings and this is likely to increase in coming months.
An increase in the number of unrepresented parties to Court proceedings is likely to cause delays within the Court system and an inequality in representation. It is anticipated that Legal Aid is still to be made available in children cases where there has been a significant level of domestic violence between the parties, but the criteria to qualify in this regard is anticipated to be very strict. It is already anticipated that many legal firms will cease to undertake Legal Aid work at all, even in circumstances where domestic violence would have enabled an individual to qualify for public funding.
There is a real fear amongst Lawyers that many parents will not be able to afford to pursue contact with their own children. There is also concern that individuals will give in to pressure from the more powerful partner to give into their demands because they will not be able to afford to defend proceedings through the Court in circumstances where it would have been perfectly reasonable to do so.
Even the present Supreme Court President, Lord Neubergers, has spoken out about his concerns for the availability of justice under the new changes. Sadly, Lord Neubergers’ warnings come somewhat too late, given that the changes are already now upon us.
It is difficult to predict the full effect of these cuts at this stage, however, individuals will need to find new ways to fund often costly legal proceedings, or in the alternative will need to deal with proceedings themselves.