We live in a time of constant change. Change happens in all areas of society, and families and family breakdowns are no exception. Change affects the way families live, how problems are handled when they break down and how we lawyers help to resolve those problems.
Sometimes, however, changes have unintended consequences, as I have discovered on three occasions in recent days.
Take, for example, the government’s reforms to legal aid. On April the first legal aid was virtually abolished for private law family matters (i.e. cases not involving a local authority). As I mentioned here last Friday, this may lead to an increase in the number of violent incidents in court, with many parties no longer having the restraining influence of legal representation.
Another consequence of the abolition of legal aid, discussed by me in my very first post but picked up yesterday by the national media, is that referrals to family mediation have plummeted. The primary reason for this is that without legal aid fewer people are consulting lawyers, and so lawyers are referring fewer to mediation. The result of this is that some mediation services may go out of business, which is particularly ironic, as the promotion of mediation as an alternative to court proceedings is a central pillar of the government’s policy to reduce the cost of the legal system.
The third recent example of unintended consequences came from a different area of government policy.
As part of its efforts to encourage the unemployed to find work, the government has introduced a ‘benefits cap’. The idea is to ensure that people are not better off by remaining unemployed, rather than working.
The way the cap works is that it limits the total amount of welfare benefits any working age household with children can receive to £500 per week and any child-free household to £350 per week. The cap is being gradually rolled out across the country. One of the first areas where it has been implemented is Haringey, where the Chartered Institute of Housing has carried out a study into its impact.
One of the findings of their study is that the cap has resulted in victims of domestic violence being unable to escape their violent (employed) partners, because they know that they will be affected by the cap if they left with their children.
Obviously, putting victims of domestic violence at peril was not one of the intentions of the government’s benefits cap policy. Surely, however, it was foreseeable? It seems to me that in their headlong rush to pursue their aims the government and those others responsible for the changes that are happening may be failing to properly think through their policies.
Perhaps a little more thought should be given to the consequences of change.