This is becoming something of a recurring theme in my posts here, but it is impossible to escape: the continuing effect of the legal aid cuts last year. The news this week has been full of it.
First, as explained here in this post on Tuesday, a former family law judge has claimed that the cuts are damaging to children involved in disputes between their parents over arrangements for them. The reason, he says, is twofold. Firstly, without the assistance of lawyers, fewer of these cases are being settled and therefore more are going to contested hearings, which will inevitably cause more acrimony and distress for the entire family (the assistance that lawyers give to the settlement of disputes is, I think, a point missed by the government when it abolished legal aid). Secondly, as has already been well noted, cases involving just litigants in person take much longer to resolve, which obviously is bad for the children – section 1(2) of the Children Act specifically states that any delay is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child.
The other piece of news this week was that on Tuesday the House of Commons Justice Committee held its second evidence session on the impact of legal aid cuts. Witnesses included Jane Robey, Director of National Family Mediation, Susan Jacklin QC, Chair of the Family Law Bar Association, Dave Emmerson, Co-Chair of the Legal Aid Committee of family lawyers’ group Resolution and Nicola Jones-King, Co-Chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children. I haven’t watched the session (it’s available to view here), but the reports that I’ve read suggest that the witnesses made some very important points, such as that unrepresented parties were getting unfair outcomes, the difficulties that they have in understanding the law and the growing trend of commercial McKenzie friends , i.e. unqualified, untrained and unregulated advisers who owe no professional duty to the court or the client.
Most of these effects were completely foreseeable, or at least should have been if the cuts had been properly thought through before they were brought in. The cuts have effectively created an ‘underclass’ of people who, simply because they are less well off, do not have proper access to justice. It’s something that I never imagined would happen in this country.
And all for what? Saving money. Now, I appreciate that these are difficult economic times and that savings to government spending had to be made, but in the scheme of things the savings made by the legal aid cuts are negligible. The cuts apparently save the government £350 million a year (although I think we might have to off-set against that increased spending on mediation). £350 million sounds a lot, but it is a drop in the ocean of government spending. Only yesterday, for example, I read that the government is to spend £3.5 BILLION on a fleet of new armoured vehicles for the army – just one very small part of the defence budget.
Now, I know that there are a lot of people out there who will say that I am just complaining about the ending of a ‘gravy train’ for lawyers, who grew fat on the profits of legal aid work. Well, I jumped off that train some years ago, so it is neither here nor there for me personally that legal aid has ended. It was also not a particularly rich form of gravy either, with most legal aid lawyers earning considerably less than their counterparts doing private work, and many barely earning enough to pay the bills. Legal aid lawyers, for the most part, are not and never were in it for the money. They do the work because they think it is important that everyone should have equal access to justice, irrespective of means.
But don’t feel sorry for the lawyers who used to do the legal aid work that is no longer available. They will just move on to doing privately funded work, or work in another area.
No, the ones who will suffer are those who no longer have access to justice. They are people such as wives who can no longer get a fair divorce settlement from their better-off husbands, fathers who can no longer get proper contact with their children, people whose former partners can’t afford to go to court and therefore take the law into their own hands, people who pay for second-rate representation and, as we’ve seen, the children involved in family disputes.
Still, think of all that money that has been saved.