A couple of weeks ago the Ministry of Justice issued a press release with the headline: Simon Hughes: We want the best family justice. (Simon Hughes, for those of you who don’t know, is the Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties, sometimes referred to as the ‘Family Justice Minister’.)
I thought I would test how well the Minister and his colleagues are doing at delivering ‘the best family justice’, by looking at a few recent headlines.
Let’s start with this one: Children being denied justice by legal cuts, says children’s commissioner, which details the findings of research by the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England into the impact of last year’s legal aid cuts on children. The research found 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 and that under the ‘exceptional funding’ regime, which the government created to ensure Legal Aid was still given to people whose human rights were at risk, due to the complexity of and strict criteria applied to the system, only 57 grants were provided in its first year, rather than the 3,700 the Ministry of Justice had expected.
All of which led the Commissioner to say:
“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.”
It doesn’t get much more damning than that.
In a similar vein, we had this headline: New MoJ/LAA data: low-income families turn backs on court, mediation falls 50% compared to pre-LASPO times, which referred to the release of the latest quarterly court statistics by the Ministry of Justice. I don’t really need to go any further than the headline on this one: low-income families being denied justice by the legal aid cuts, and the failure of mediation, the government’s ‘big idea’ to replace legal aid. Hardly the stuff of the best family justice system.
This headline was far from alone, either. How about these similar ones: Legal aid funding in family cases drops 27% compared to the same quarter last year, or Number of cases in family court falls 19% from last year? Then there was: Latest statistics show that Government push has had little impact on mediation numbers and Thousands of families shut out from justice since Government cuts. I wonder if Mr Hughes enjoyed reading those.
Another headline that gave a specific example of a group that has suffered as a result of the legal aid cuts was this one: Victims of domestic violence forced to face abusers in court ordeal, which appeared in a national newspaper over the weekend and explained how domestic violence victims are being quizzed by their former partners in court due to cuts in legal aid which have led to a rise in litigation-in-person cases. This was particularly ironic, seeing that domestic violence victims were supposed to be one of the few groups that were saved from the effects of the legal aid cuts.
And the good news was not just limited to courts and effects of legal aid cuts. We also had: Dramatic drop in parents applying for child maintenance help as charges begin, in which single parent charity Gingerbread warned that (unsurprisingly) thousands of parents are choosing not to seek help from the new government Child Maintenance Service because of new charges brought in this summer. Another group of people forced to fend for themselves as a result of this government’s policies.
So, there we are: poorer family justice for children, low income families, victims of domestic violence, single parents and others. These headlines are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg – covering only those areas of concern about the family justice system that have surfaced over the last couple of weeks. There are, of course many other concerns that weren’t covered by the headlines, such as court delays caused by more litigants in person and the upsurge of unqualified and unregulated legal advisers. It really doesn’t take much imagination to see that the reality is that we are moving further away from ‘the best family justice’, rather than closer to it.