Sometimes it seems as if there is nothing but bad news in the field of family law. Reviewing the headlines for just the last week I have come across the following:
“Legal aid cuts have left family courts ‘at breaking point’”
“Court refers just 2 per cent of parties to mediation”
“Domestic violence refuge provision at crisis point, warn charities”
“Family lawyers face £100m legal aid shortfall”
The common theme, of course, is the lack of resources available to continue to provide services at the level that they were previously provided. The particularly worrying thing, however, is that even at the height of expenditure those services were never considered to provide more than the most basic level of provision. In other words, what was once considered essential is now considered to be an unaffordable luxury.
Obviously, there wouldn’t be a problem if the axed services were replaced with a suitable alternative, but this just hasn’t happened. For example, the government’s efforts to herd litigants in person towards the doors of mediators have patently failed, as witness one of the headlines referred to above.
I have, of course, written here previously about the legal aid cuts and their effects, both upon the most vulnerable in society and the lawyers who offer a legal aid service. I expect no public sympathy for the latter, but it was at least grimly satisfying to read the other day that public support for legal aid cuts is on the wane. Clearly, the reality of the cuts and the impact that they are having upon those in need is hitting home, with more and more people affected, or knowing someone who has been affected.
What I have not written about here previously is the story behind the third headline I listed above. Of course, it’s not exactly news that domestic violence refuges are closing due to funding cuts, but it is interesting (and depressing) to read that charities involved with domestic violence now consider that the lack of refuge provision has reached crisis point.
For much of my time practising as a family lawyer I did a considerable amount of domestic violence work. I was even for a while on a local panel of solicitors that offered an urgent domestic violence service at short notice and out of hours. Most of my work was of course funded by legal aid. I remember how essential it was for many of my clients that there was a local refuge available for them. Remember, these are extremely vulnerable people with few or no resources of their own. For them and their children the reality is that they have nowhere else to go to escape their violent partners. Without a refuge, the only option is to remain in harm’s way.
Again, the closure of refuges wouldn’t be a problem if there were suitable alternatives, but there aren’t. I know that some local authorities are putting money into “support in the community” or are directing domestic violence victims towards housing associations, but these seem to me to be just excuses for reducing the bill. If you are faced with a determined, seriously violent partner who is prepared to follow you wherever you go, then there really isn’t an alternative to a proper secret safe house refuge.
I find it somewhat ironic that on the one hand the government acknowledged that legal aid had to be kept available for domestic violence cases, when on the other hand the essential service of refuges is being taken away. I know that money remains tight and that those holding the purse strings must look wherever they can for savings, but some things just must be exempt from the axe. It is the duty of society to look after its most vulnerable citizens and that means ensuring that they have access to justice and protection from harm.
These things should not be negotiable.