Hardly a day seems to pass without further news of the devastating effect of the government’s legal aid cuts last year.
A few days ago we heard of the continued decline in public-funded mediation. Mediation is, of course, the flagship of the government’s policy to replace legal aid. People are supposed to settle their disputes in mediation, so that they don’t ever need to go through the courts, and therefore don’t miss legal aid. However, the cuts meant that people couldn’t afford to go to lawyers, and therefore the lawyers were no longer referring them to mediators, with the result that many mediators may go out of business.
Yesterday, there was news of another victim of the legal aid cuts when a leading set of specialist family law barristers with 28 members blamed them for their decision to close down. This is the second set of barristers to close down due to the legal aid cuts, although the other set specialised in human rights and civil liberties.
It is also surely just the tip of the iceberg. There is anecdotal evidence that many firms of solicitors are facing closure as a result of the cuts, and some have already closed. Many others are no doubt choosing to stop doing family work, with insufficient privately funded work available in their area to make up the shortfall caused by the loss of legal aid.
Of course, I don’t expect many of the general public to shed a tear for the demise of a set of barristers or the odd firm of solicitors. After all, lawyers are not the most popular figures amongst the public – why should anyone care about them?
Well, family lawyers are rather like members of the emergency services. We all hope we’ll never need one, but we’re damned glad they are there when we do. Not only that, but we’re glad they are (for the most part) highly-trained professionals who know what they are doing. Who would want medical treatment from an amateur who dabbles in medicine?
Don’t get me wrong: there are non-lawyers out there who do provide an excellent service. Just a couple of weeks ago Mrs Justice Pauffley praised the efforts of a McKenzie friend in J and K (Children: Private Law). However, that McKenzie friend was someone who had extensive experience in the family justice system. There are few such people around – obviously, the availability of good representation for people of low means was far better before legal aid was cut.
Every set of barristers that shuts down and every firm of solicitors that closes reduces the pool of expert professionals who will be there in the future for those people unfortunate enough to find themselves in need of their services. This includes not just those who can afford to pay for legal services, but also those few for whom legal aid is still available, such as those whose children are the subject of care proceedings (the set of barristers that are closing specialised in children work) and those who have suffered domestic violence.
It’s not just a reduction in choice. There could well come a time when it will be difficult to find a family law expert at all, particularly in less well-off areas of the country.
But the cuts have, of course, already claimed thousands of victims. They are the people who can’t afford a lawyer and for whom legal aid is no longer available.
For most members of the public the prospect of going through a legal process such as divorce or a dispute over arrangements for children without legal representation must be a nightmare, particularly where other party has the means to be represented. One can only imagine the stress that they must endure, let alone the disadvantage that they suffer.