The government has launched a new web app aimed at separating parents.
Sorting Out Separation offers information on the various legal, practical and childcare issues surrounding the end of relationships, including housing, money and finance, work and benefits, and resolving conflict. It is, claims the government, a “one-stop-shop for any parent going through a separation.”
The app, which can be embedded on other websites by clicking here, is aimed at a general audience, people who may have no knowledge of the legalities surrounding separation. The app developers have clearly been at pains to use plain English and avoid jargon. Visitors are met with the announcement:
“Knowing what to do or where to turn to when you separate can be difficult. If you’re a parent, you’ll want to make sure you do what’s right for your children. And if you’re a friend or relative of someone going through a break up, you’ll probably be looking for ways you can help. Sorting out separation is here to give you the support you need.”
Elsewhere, we find on the Relationships and Conflict page we find the straightforward and impressively concise statement:
“It’s normal during a break-up to feel angry, frustrated or sad when you think of your ex-partner. Learning to deal with your ex without conflict means you can build a better future for yourself, and your children.”
In addition to the bite-sized information on offer, some sections also include illustrative videos in the tradition of the government public information films of decades past, now remembered fondly by some curators of popular culture.
The Department for Work & Pensions clearly expects a big audience for the app. The launch release notes that 300,000 families experience separation every year and also cites a new YouGov poll reportedly showing that more than half of parents (52 per cent) “find it hard to access help and support they need when they separate.”
Work and Pensions Minister Steve Webb claims the app will help such couples:
“Parents tell us they don’t know where to turn for support when they’re going through a separation. A third of British children now live in separated families and it’s vital we help parents to access better advice.”
I would strongly take issue with that statement. I suspect they certainly do know where to turn for legal advice, but in the absence of the ability to pay, how should “we” go about helping those parents? Where should the government be concentrating its resources? Perhaps some of those 300,000 separating families will find the app a useful source of basic advice and pointers (as that is all it is) but there is a massive elephant in the room here. It’s called Legal Aid.
Once upon a time every hard up separating parent was entitled to apply for Legal Aid, albeit in the case of “Middle England” usually by paying a contribution towards the overall cost which at the end of the case would usually be repaid (together with interest) via the application of the Statutory Charge. Nowadays it’s sickeningly and depressingly different. Legal Aid is going, going… and is almost gone.
From April next year, almost all legal aid funding for family law cases will come to end and the great majority of those 300,000 families will be unable to afford legal representation. The courts are already filling with unrepresented litigants in person.
Every day of the week, including weekends, I receive at least one request (usually more than one) from someone seeking free advice from me, because the writer cannot afford to pay a lawyer. They approach me, a stranger over the internet, hoping I can wave a magic wand and help them out. I certainly try but there are limits to what I can do with my own time, especially as many writers omit a large number of relevant details so its impossible to fully advise without entering into reams of correspondence.
So, Minister, with great respect to you, I absolutely disagree that parents don’t know where to turn for advice. They certainly do. The most obvious source of advice for them when they want to know about the law is to instruct lawyers.
Every solicitor knows the law, and the advice they offer and the legal actions they suggest are tailor-made to each individual case. That is the triumph and overall beauty of English family law. It isn’t constrained by strict formulae, one size does not fit all. It allows for everyone, from the richest to the poorest in the land, to come to the law and have their own case dealt with in accordance with its own case-specific facts. Every family is different and is treated with dignity accorded to every family regardless of wealth.
An app on the other hand can (and does) provide only the most limited of generic information, and Sorting Out Separation is certainly no exception. It won’t knock you out with the information it contains, and lawyers who read the legal information may be incredibly frustrated by a pedantic, repetitive tone which fails to cater for cohabitants, as opposed to the very rare few who want to present a petition for nullity.
Kill off Legal Aid and no matter how many gimmicks you come up with, not one of them will replace the personal services of a skilled lawyer. There is no gimmick either that will fix a court system in meltdown because the people who are absolutely vital to make it work – the lawyers – have been removed.
There must be something more that could be done, even in the current era of downturn and economic gloom. Rather than simply abolishing state-funded legal aid and leaving a void in its place, why not introduce a system of affordable legal loans for those in need? Students may grumble about their low rate, long term loans but plenty are still going to university.
Photo of Steve Webb MP by David Spender via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons licence