Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced a national rollout of in-court advice centres designed to help people who do not have legal representation.
So far, so good, but the solution is a disaster. Not only will it not help, I think it has the potential to make things so much worse.
Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) was passed last year, legal aid for private family law cases has all but disappeared. The idea was to encourage more people to resolve their disputes outside of the courts but, in practice, it has caused a significant rise in the number of litigants in person.
Mr Hughes’ solution is a network of advice centres which will be staffed by student volunteers. How is that helpful? What skills or experience do young graduates have in law, negotiation, practice and procedure?
Students are in no position to give legal advice. This is especially true in divorce cases. What kind of reassurance will they be able to offer sometimes much more mature adults who are going through one of the most traumatic periods in their life?
I wonder if Mr Hughes has considered what impact this will this have on the volunteers. Are they really equipped to deal with the kinds of emotional outbursts that are common in these kinds of cases?
Quite frankly, the whole thing is a recipe for pandemonium.
Not only that, Mr Hughes’ hypocrisy is hard to stomach.
Here is a photograph I took of Mr Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, in 2013, before he became a minister. He was standing alongside members of the Justice Alliance who presented him with a letter calling for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to oppose legal aid cuts.
Prior to his appointment as Family Justice Minister, he criticised the government’s plans for legal aid cuts. In a response to a Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation last year, he said “access to a lawyer/supplier of choice… is a fundamental right and it should not be removed by administrative means”.
He presented himself as an ally of legal aid and a supporter of the justice system, yet since his appointment he has done nothing at all to back that up. He has proved himself to be totally spineless.
Last month, he said that going to court to resolve family disputes was “not the sign of a civilised family justice system”, while insisting that mediation was a better alternative.
These are not the words of someone who truly supports our justice system. Proposing to allow student volunteers to attempt the work of lawyers is further proof.
The courts are designed to operate with lawyers. These steps indicate a government hell bent on removing us from the equation.
How much damage will they allow before they admit they’re wrong?