Readers may have learned from the media about the scandal surrounding the savage cuts to legal aid in family law cases. If you aren’t aware of what has happened, please let me enlighten you. You will be shocked, not just by what has happened, but also by the arbitrary, and incomprehensible manner in which the Legal Services Commission (LSC), which runs the legal aid scheme in England and Wales, has acted.
In summary, the number of firms able to offer family law legal aid as a service to their clients has been slashed from 2,400 to 1,300. This is a travesty that calls for judicial review.
At the beginning of my legal career I used to work voluntarily, giving legal advice at the Citizens Advice Bureau in a very rundown area of Leeds. I did it because I knew from my mum, who worked there as a volunteer adviser, of the desperate need for free legal advice – particularly for abused women who had nowhere to go with their children after assaults by their partners. By chance one evening, I met a very good-looking young lawyer doing exactly the same thing, because he cared too. And as the phrase goes: reader, I married him!
With another young lawyer, Arthur Bateson, Grahame had set up a legal aid law office in Leeds. After our marriage, which we dashed into within weeks because we had fallen head over heels for one another, the three of us joined forces and began setting up branch offices, always in the less affluent area and always to help the most socially disadvantaged. And we loved it.
I went on to found Stowe Family Law. However Grahame Stowe Bateson, or “GSB” as it is known, has continued to grow and has attracted good, decent lawyers. They aren’t in the profession to make a lot of money, but they are devoted to their work and they do it because they care.
In the late 1980s I had a trainee called Richard Howard and, although we joke that he couldn’t get away from me fast enough once he had qualified, he moved to another branch of GSB and is now a highly competent child care lawyer with higher rights of audience. I’m very proud that I had something to do with that!
Grahame now heads a firm of more than 70 people, in six offices around Leeds. Although he sits as a part-time judge, some of his clients even call him “Stowey”, because he hasn’t an arrogant bone in his body. He is well-liked and well-respected – but for Grahame, that isn’t enough! He had the idea of giving free legal advice to those who were in need of help. Every GSB office holds free advice clinics, and the firm has provided more than £1 million in pro bono advice since it was set up. When the firm passed the £1 million milestone last year, Grahame was praised by local MPs and also by the President of the Law Society, who noted that GSB “has shown a real commitment to providing access to justice, which is priceless to those who benefit from the advice provided”.
Grahame takes his turn doing the duty solicitor scheme, which, whenever he is telephoned in the early hours of the morning drives me bonkers as I hear him say for the umpteenth time, “Don’t say anything until we’re there!” He is unfailingly courteous to every client, whether they are sober or not.
After more than 25 years together, I know him quite well! He is an absolute credit to the legal profession and especially in his service to the socially disadvantaged.
So what work is done by legal aid family lawyers?
Legal aid family lawyers represent some of the poorest people in the country, the socially disadvantaged, young children who are abused and who cannot protect themselves and parents who are accused of abuse and who stand to lose their children forever.
Legal aid for family cases is divided into public law and private law cases.
Public law means child care, and cases in which local authorities are involved. Perhaps children have been removed from parents who are suspected of abuse, or the children are being adopted. It is tough, highly-skilled work, because the consequences of error can result in a lifelong tragedy.
Private law means issues arising within a family, such as divorce, finances and arrangements about children.
I can only surmise that the LSC was told by the Government that the cuts had to be swingeing, because it has axed the contracts to law firms by almost 50%. And this is where the injustice comes in…
Entire firms of lawyers now can no longer offer legal aid. In a city the size of Leeds (population: 771,000), we have been told that there are now only eight firms offering legal aid instead of 31. Of those 31 firms, 23 are no longer permitted to provide legal aid services.
Lawyers are being put out of business with the swing of an axe. It has been a cause of great concern that the criteria used by the LSC to dictate where the axe would fall were kept secret until almost the very last moment. This left firms with scant opportunity to ensure that they could meet them.
Ironically lawyers who specialise in family law have fared poorly, as opposed to general family lawyers, because their specialist expertise has been held against them. This makes no sense at all.
It means that some of the Law Society’s own family law assessors – many of them appointed by me when I was Chief Assessor and Chief Examiner of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel – are no longer permitted to provide legal aid. Significant swathes of the country will no longer have legal aid lawyers. Whole areas of cities will no longer be served by legal aid family lawyers.
At the time of writing the LSC is not answering telephone calls, letters or emails from desperate lawyers who are trying to make sense of the criteria and understand why they haven’t qualified.
And what of my husband’s firm, GSB?
Well, Grahame Stowe Bateson’s office in Harrogate has been awarded a family contract. Their Leeds offices have not. This means that none of the six Leeds offices can do legal aid family law work, not even in areas of Leeds where legal aid is most needed.
Grahame Stowe Bateson has been awarded a child care contract in Leeds. So its public child care work could continue.
But get this. The firm has been told to choose which one it wants. It can have one contract in Harrogate, or a child care contract in Leeds, but it can’t have both.
So, does Grahame Stowe Bateson keep its public law child care work or does every single GSB office in Leeds and Harrogate stop its private, legally aided family law work? If you were heading the firm and this senseless question had been put to you, what would you choose?
Grahame and his team have joined the swelling ranks of the lawyer-protestors, angry at the stupid, arbitrary swing of the axe.
My husband, who has uncomplainingly devoted his life to help others, now fights to continue serving the most disadvantaged in our society as he has served them all his professional life.