Whilst I took no pleasure in it, there was a sort of grim satisfaction last week in seeing the government’s plans for a post-legal aid family justice system continue to unravel.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Justice published its annual report presenting the key statistics on activity in the legal aid system for England and Wales. As far as the category of family legal aid is concerned, it did not make happy reading. The report told us that in the last four years volumes in family law have been decreasing. However, in the last year there has been a 60 per cent drop compared to the year before. Yes, sixty per cent. The report tells us that: “This change is likely to be driven by the change in scope for legal aid as a result of the LASPO [Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders] Act.” ‘Likely’? I would say ‘certain’. Sixty per cent fewer people getting legal aid and therefore having to fend for themselves as they tip-toe through the minefield of family court proceedings is the certain and obvious result of the cuts brought in by the Act.
The report went on to inform us that the largest falls have been in private law Children’s Act proceedings, with over 30,000 fewer legal aid certificates being granted. That’s more than thirty thousand people having to resolve issues of vital importance to their children’s future without the benefit of proper legal advice and representation. Whilst those holding the government purse-strings may be rubbing their hands with glee, I would hardly call that a great success for a governmental policy.
Of course, the government’s big solution to the mess caused by the abolition of legal aid was to be mediation. Mediation would solve everything – couples would happily rush along to their local mediator and merrily sort out everything by agreement, thereby eradicating the need for anyone to use those nasty courts.
Except that they aren’t rushing. That same legal aid report showed that in the last year since legal aid was abolished there have been 56 percent fewer mediation assessments, 38 per cent fewer mediation ‘starts’ and 27 per cent fewer cases agreed in mediation. The figures were described as “embarrassing” for the government by National Family Mediation (‘NFM’), the largest provider of family mediation in England and Wales.
NFM are so concerned about the downward trend in mediation that they have urged the government to take action to reverse the trend, for example by making Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings free, presumably with the government picking up the bill. That wouldn’t make those purse-string holders quite so happy though, would it?
And neither would the other piece of legal-aid related news last week. In an ironic about-turn Justice Minister Simon Hughes announced that free DNA tests are being provided to speed up resolution of disputes over the paternity of children. Of course, the cost of DNA tests used to be covered by legal aid, which meant that most paternity disputes used to be resolved swiftly, the results of the tests being conclusive. Mr Hughes has just realised something that was obvious to anyone who knew anything about the system: without legal aid people can’t afford DNA tests, which makes paternity disputes much more difficult to resolve, taking up considerably more court time. Accordingly, the government has decided that it is best if they pay for the tests after all.
All in all, it was not a good week for the government’s policies, which have been a disaster for the family justice system and those who use it.
Photo by John Cassidy via Flickr