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What family lawyers were talking about this week…

The High Court has granted permission for a campaign group to challenge a government policy depriving victims of domestic violence access to legal aid. Rights of Women sought permission for a judicial review challenging the lawfulness of the government’s legal aid cuts introduced in April 2013 which it says prevent victims getting legal aid, even when it is clear there has been violence, or ongoing risk of violence, unless they can show prescribed evidence. A full hearing will take place later this year.

Cafcass has published a review of 300 Children’s Guardians’ views on the decisions of local authorities around care applications over a three week period in November 2013. The findings endorse much of the work of social workers, considering, in general, that local authorities are bringing the right cases to court, usually at the right time, and with the cases having been well prepared. It’s nice for social workers to get some good publicity, for a change.

Mr Justice Mostyn has said that women who begin new relationships soon after their marriage break-up risk harming their divorce settlement. In AB v CB he said that dating before divorce was a “fly in the ointment” for family court judges asked to decide how much money husbands should give wives following marriage break-ups, and that women risked losing their share of the spoils because judges might naturally assume they would set up home with their new partners, assuring their financial future. For my view on this, see my post, here.

Research by the Children’s Commissioner has shown that the impact of the legal aid changes on children has been vastly underestimated. The research showed that in 70 per cent of private family cases one or both parties did not have legal representation compared with 54 per cent who had it previously. Under the ‘exceptional funding’ regime, which the government created to ensure Legal Aid was still given to people whose human rights were at risk, only 57 grants were provided in its first year, rather than the 3,700 the Ministry of Justice had expected. Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England said “The human cost of Legal Aid reforms is clearly immense. Behind the evidence in our research are countless heart rending stories of children and vulnerable young adults whose lives have been seriously affected by their inability to access legal representation. This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice.” Yet another example of the many adverse effects of the legal aid cuts.

Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes has told a conference of the Family Mediators Association that the government wants the best family justice. He said: “It is not the sign of a civilised family justice system to have more and more people litigating in court whether with lawyers alongside them or not. A civilised system is to have more people resolving disputes away from the often confrontational atmosphere of the courtroom. That is why we continue to give our support, both through legal aid funding and promotional work, to alternatives like mediation which can resolve disputes without going to court. Mediation is often quicker and cheaper and leads to more amicable outcomes which both sides can accept because they have agreed them together.” The problem, of course, with this is that not all disputes are suitable for mediation and therefore many people are forced to go to court, often now without legal representation. Hardly “the best family justice”.

Meanwhile, the latest statistics show that the government’s mediation push (including the efforts of Mr Hughes) has had little impact on mediation numbers. The Legal Aid Quarterly statistics show that there were 1,778 publicly funded mediation starts between April and June, which is up slightly from 1,751 in the previous quarter. However, these figures show a significant year on year fall, with 2,706 mediation starts in the equivalent period in 2013.

The same statistics also show that legal aid funding in family cases dropped 27 per cent compared to the same quarter last year and the latest quarterly court statistics show that the number of cases that started in family courts in England and Wales in April to June 2014 dropped 19 per cent compared to the equivalent quarter of 2013. Those statistics also showed that the number of private law cases where both parties were represented fell by nearly 40 per cent in April to June 2014 compared to the same quarter the previous year. Not really any surprises there.

Have a good weekend.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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