Unintended consequences by John Bolch

Family|Family Law | 29 Oct 2013 5

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.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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    1. Paul says:

      The big mistake in my view was enacting all these changes around family law without having a tangible, visible, family-friendly point-of-reference for people to take their relationship problems to. A bit like a Citizens Advice bureau for families. “Families First” I term it, similar to the FRCs in Australia. Going to a solicitor is a step too far for many people, a road that many don’t wish to go down. And why should they?

    2. Tulsa Divorce Lawyer Matt Ingham says:

      Change is constant. Glad to see family law is trying to keep up.

    3. Stitchedup says:

      The media report link takes you to the telegraph:

      “From April of this year legal aid has no longer been available in most divorce cases except in extreme cases such as where there are allegations of domestic violence. ”

      Again I quote Cathy Meyer on About.com.


      “For some reason women are finding it easier to say, “I was abused,” instead of “I no longer love you” when attempting to get out of a marriage.”

      Allegations of domestic are becoming the norm in divorce and separation and are by no means indicative of extreme cases or indeed what most reasonable people would consider genuine domestic violence. It’s a gravy train for all sorts of benefits including legal aid.

      And John, I see no reason why a woman suffering genuine domestic violence would not be prepared to live of £500/week in the interests of protecting herself and her children, its certainly more than I have to live off at the moment.

      Let’s face it, it would only be a temporary arrangement anyway. A woman only has to claim domestic violence to get legal aid, the man will then be shafted in court, she will no doubt secure occupation of the family home, child and spousal maintenance. A complete red herring.

    4. JamesB says:

      Have to agree with stitchedup entirely on all of that. My experiences were the same as that. My ex wife started to be ‘in fear’ of me following her first visit to the solicitors office, not before. Funny, she didn’t seem to be so in fear of me when she kept punching me in the back. Then again a lot of these arguments are strange, and I also find it difficult to pity someone getting £500 per week from the government. Personally, as a white heterosexual man I have never got anything but massive bills from the government.

    5. Stitchedup says:

      Snap JamesB…

      My ex told me we were separating because I was outdoorsy, she wasn’t so we clashed. The real reason was that she was having an inappropriate relationship with somebody she had met through work.

      I wouldn’t agree to her financial proposal so offered mediation to come to an agreement.

      Next thing is the solicitor’s letter refusing mediation AND an allegation that she felt intimidated by me. This is a woman that would start a fight in a cemetery, known as “not being backward in coming forward” and described in her appraisal by a HR manager of a law firm she worked for previously as “not knowing the difference between being assertive and being aggressive”. But being a petite, 5ft 3in pretty big blue eyed blonde, fully capable of putting on the charm and butter wouldn’t melt, could literally get way with murder in front of a judge that didn’t really know her.

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