Nicola Jones-King, Partner and Deputy Head of our Family and Children Law Department gave evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee as part of their enquiry into the effects of the Legal Aid and Sentencing of Offenders Act.  This Act introduced significant changes to Legal Aid in family cases but was intended to ensure Legal Aid remained available for vulnerable people and children.  Legal Aid was taken away from divorce, residence and contact (now Child Arrangement Orders) and financial order proceedings.  Unless the individual had been the victim of domestic abuse or the child is said to be at risk of harm.  These two exemptions are established by producing specific documents to the Legal Aid Agency and only certain documents will do.  Legal Aid remains for mediation, for children who are parties to a case or applications brought by Social Services.  The concept of exceptional funding was expanded all allowing individuals (or solicitors on their behalf) to seek Legal Aid, if without it they would be unable to access justice and their human rights would be infringed.

Nicola Jones-King as Co-Chair of ALC and their spokesperson on Legal Aid issues was closely involved in the Association’s response to Governemnet and Parliament as LASPO was being considered.  Many concerns were raised before the Act came into force, that vulnerable people would be left unprotected, as the system was too narrow and too complex and poorly explained.  All concerns were met with the response that exceptional funding would be available to pick up any differences.

One year on, it is clear the LASPO has failed to deliver.  Instead of the expected  volume of grants of exceptional funding of 1468.applications across all areas of law only 57 have been granted of what only 8 in family law out of 821 applications.  Mediation take up has also fallen, and the hundreds of people representing themselves has gone up with resulting increases in the time hearings take and increasing delay.

In giving evidence to the Justice Committee who are reviewing the effectiveness of LASPO, Nicola jones-King said

“It is clear LASPO has failed to deliver, many are left unable to obtain the documents they need to get the Legal Aid they are entitled to due to costs or their own vulnerability or disabilities.  Exceptional Funding is too restrictive and the limited number of grants means it has fallen well short of stepping in as Govt promised where an individual’s rights are infringed.  This issue has been recently considered by the most senior family Court Judge Sir James Murphy (President of Family Association) [see separate article].  Litigants in person face considerable challenge in understanding the legal concepts, case law and then managing their evidence, presenting it to a Court in the best way and marshalling their case to achieve the best possible outcome.  That is what lawyers are for, and the consequence of the Act is that those at risk of violence or who have victims or have other difficulties to struggle with, on top of coping emotionally with difficult family breakdown are being failed.  Without access to legal advice, guidance, important issues may be overlooked and wrong decisions made for children. 

The unintended consequences in terms of significant harm to family relationships, financial vulnerability and being left in ongoing fear of violence are real, and are storing up problems for society in future years.  Legal Aid is a key part of the reforms introduced to establish the welfare state as a true mark of a free and just society.  This Act seriously undermines an individuals ability to act to protect themselves or their families unless they happen to be rich,  if not there is a real disadvantage to them. For the Government to say it has no part to play in private family law, is to deny access to even basic diagnostic legal advice and thus a person a chance of legal redress or protection  To say this can be addressed by an inadequate website and the increasingly .reduced free advice services who have also suffered from budget cuts is no alternative.  Poverty or being on a low income should not be a bar to getting proper legal advice from a professional who can marshal the facts, advise and present the case.  It is akin to suggesting a person who needs a new boiler can sort it themselves after picking one up off the shelf, and reading a few self help leaflets. The danger of doing that is obvious, just because the danger of trying to sort out legal issues oneself is less so, doesn’t mean it is any the less dangerous.”

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