The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has published its preliminary findings from a survey conducted to assess the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’), which enacted the cuts to legal aid. The survey was undertaken to look at the effects of the legislation on access to justice and on the legal profession one year on from LASPO coming into effect. A total of 716 people responded to the survey, of which nearly 90% were barristers. Of the respondents who worked in the family courts 80% reported an increase in court delays since the implementation of LASPO and 88% reported an increase in self-representation. The findings also revealed that 61% of all respondents noted an increase in the number of lay clients saying they had difficulty accessing legal advice and representation. No surprises there whatsoever.
On a similar note, figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request have revealed that the number of parents forced to represent themselves before the family courts jumped by 20,000 last year, following the abolition of legal aid for almost all family cases. The increase means that for the first time more than half of parents – 58 per cent – went into court without a lawyer representing them in 2013/14. In the previous year, before legal aid changes came in, just 43 per cent of parents before the family courts were not represented by lawyers. No surprises there either.
A former family court judge has criticised social workers’ handling of children’s cases, claiming there is “an increased pressure to intervene” in the wake of the Baby P tragedy. Sir Mark Hedley made the comments to ITV in a new documentary about so-called ‘forced adoption’. In Exposure: Don’t Take My Child, screened on the 15th of July, Sir Mark said: “There is a highly defensive atmosphere around, both in social services and in the state generally about future disasters like that happening again. That has meant, I think, that there is increased regulation, there is an increased pressure on social workers to intervene where they might not have done so in the past.” I suspect that social workers are beginning to think that they are damned if they do and they are damned if they don’t.
On a slightly lighter note, a law lecturer has suggested that a new approach to resolving pet custody disputes on relationship breakdown be adopted. Debbie Rook of Northumbria Law School has written an article on the subject in which she advocates that the courts apply a ‘best interests of the animal’ test rather than, as at present, simply treating the pet as another type of property. As a pet lover myself I have to agree.
Lastly, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’) has published its annual report and accounts for 2013-14. Amongst the key points in the report were that Cafcass received 10,606 care applications, a 4.5% decrease on 2012-13 and that private law applications rose 2% from 45,605 in 2012-13 to 46,465 in 2013-14, the highest ever annual total for private law cases received. The report also demonstrates the progress that has been made in reducing the duration of care proceedings to the 26 weeks target introduced as part of the Children and Families Act 2014. The report states that in the last quarter of the year, eight out of 40 Designated Family Judge areas were already completing applications in less than the 26 week target and that the national average is 33 weeks.
I suppose that that can be considered to be a reasonably positive end to a week dominated by negative news.
Have a good weekend.