On Saturday night we went out for dinner with a couple of friends. There we were, in the gorgeous surroundings of the Delaunay restaurant in central London, having a wonderful dinner, discussing our concerns for the future of legal aid. We talked about our Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, a former TV executive and decidedly not a lawyer, and just what his department has done to legal aid.
My husband is now semi-retired, a consultant in his firm and our friend, who was once a legal aid lawyer, is also now semi-retired. They both hold judicial office on a part time basis and both are now free of the constant responsibilities, challenges and stress of running a law firm, after years as senior partners in legal aid practices.
No longer do they have to wake up in the morning to check the new work coming into the office, be told the bank position that day and worry about ensuring a decent cash flow. They no longer have to deal with all the regulatory requirements that have steadily become more onerous as the years have gone by, deal with the increasing cost of indemnity insurance, practising certificates, suppliers, clients being slow to pay their bills – that whole host of problems that can crop up any day in any law firm and frequently do. After 40-odd years of working at the coal face, long days and frequently long nights, they can both relax and enjoy their dinners. I can say they both look far, far better for it.
Still thinking about our dinner table discussion, I went for a run yesterday through St James’s Park and I ended up quite by accident, running past a building with a huge sign outside. It is called the ‘Ministry of Justice’.
As I looked up at this vast building, I started to laugh. How ironic. The Ministry of Justice? As I ran past it, I asked myself , what does ‘justice’ still have to do with law? It is all about money now. Justice doesn’t come into it.
A confession, one which I have made before. In 1990, to the amazement of my firm, I decided to stop doing legal aid. In short, I loved the work but loathed the red tape: for example the constraints on me just to get a certificate amended so I could provide a service at some future point in time, the same service I could provide immediately for a privately paying client. I tired of the form-filling, of chasing up a faceless bureaucrat to get an extension or query a certificate or appeal a ridiculous refusal, then finally going through a drawn-out payment process to eventually retrieve a sliver of what my private clients paid me. In the end I decided enough was enough.
Everyone else thought I was mad. They told me the firm never manage without legal aid, that it was safe, steady and secure – but of course, we’ve all since discovered just how secure legal aid really was. I didn’t need to come back to it and thank goodness for that. I missed the work but, from a business perspective, I now dread to think what would have happened to my firm had I continued.
Other legal aid lawyers, however, kept on going. They stuck to the system that drove me bonkers. They kept doing the work that I did for far more remuneration than them. Day in, day out, they steadfastly delivered a service that was being whittled further and further down. And now here we all are in 2013, that landmark year when legal aid for private family clients has been completely abolished, even for the poorest among us.
When I try to imagine what that means, my mind goes blank with shock. Family law isn’t just about issuing a relatively straightforward divorce petition and then going online to read the DWP’s latest bland app (assuming you know what an app actually is). It isn’t about going into a supermarket and ordering a tightly-budgeted appointment while buying the weekly shop.
It is about being advised and being represented when making applications to the court for ancillary relief. It is about someone who cares telling you the procedure and the law, making you feel safe. Its about having the best chance to get the right result And that is of course just the tip of the iceberg in divorce. How about TOLATA? Surrogacy? Or an Inheritance Act application? How about dealing with international child abduction? Making a Schedule 1 Children Act application?
Yes, there is the argument that only the well-off would need to make these types of application – but it isn’t just about the wealthy, who usually (but not always) have the means to push such applications. It’s about the woman with no income of her own with a family, or someone hard done by in a will. Its about someone who has an interest in a property and needs to fight to get it, with no means to do so. It’s about someone who doesn’t want to sell her home and needs the help of a lawyer so she can stay in that home with her children rather than live in a council house. Legal aid used to be able to help such people.
Justice for everyone.
The family law profession eventually woke up to the implications of abolishing legal aid, but did so far too late to stop the process. The Law Society tried, but it was toothless, any real power having long ago withered away. The judiciary uttered barely a squeak and told us to grin and bear it, not to complain about what we cannot change. Why? Why should we grin and bear it? Just look at what we have now. A family law justice system that is rotten because it serves only those who can afford to litigate, such as the Prests and the oligarchs whom Grayling is courting with open arms to our wonderful, shiny new mercantile courts. Come share in our legal system and bring your money with you – and as we all know, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.
Yes, we discussed our professional careers on Saturday over dinner. We were able to relax, we who have escaped legal aid and Chris Grayling and his Ministry of “Justice”.
Photo of Lady Justice over the Old Bailey by Joe Dunckley via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence