It’s become something of a theme on my blog over the last year, but it cannot be stated enough: the cuts to legal aid have been a dismal failure.
A new National Audit Office (NAO) report reveals that there has been a shocking 89 per cent rise in family law cases involving children where neither parent has legal representation.
The government did not adequately consider the potential impact such cuts would have on people’s lives, the NAO claims. To a family lawyer, this has been obvious for a while. I discussed these issues with London talk radio station LBC this morning.
There have been several reports detailing the sharp rise in ‘litigants in person’, people who represent themselves in court, since legal aid was slashed to the bone in 2013. This rise has become a significant problem.
However, it is not the only problem. There have been drops in people applying to court, and who can blame them if they’re not highly educated and overwhelmed by the legal process? A lot of people simply would not know where to begin. This leads me to believe that there will be all sorts of injustice: failure to maintain, failure to divide assets in accordance with the law, people being thrown onto the state seeking income and housing when it’s not necessary and so on.
Any money saved by the cuts to the legal aid budget may be wiped out by the increase to social welfare budgets overall.
Then there are the most tragic cases of all: families whose children are taken into care or even adopted away and the parents do not qualify for legal aid and have to represent themselves against the fully armed machinery of the Local Authority.
The legal system itself depends on lawyers to function. Let’s not forget, before even getting close to court, lawyers frequently cut deals to keep their clients out of court. They can speak off the record to their opponent and reach a reasonable deal. It’s not that easy dealing with the litigant on the other side, and there is no ‘buffer’ who can advise objectively and sort things out.
Litigants in person are simply not lawyers. Few have any previous experience of the law, and what little they do know may not be accurate. They do not know what they are doing, what the law says, or how to properly go through the process of reaching a deal. That takes years of training. Before a lawyer can practice in court they need to have seven years’ worth of training under their belt, yet litigants in person are often armed with whatever knowledge they can pull from the internet.
As a result of this lack of expertise, litigants in person often have to rely on judges to hold their hands through the process. This is a problem because it is not the judge’s job to be a friend or a legal adviser. They are there to make a judgment. It’s as simple as that. The fact that they are now having to take time to explain each step to people who do not have access to a lawyer has slowed the family justice system down almost to a stop.
The Labour Party is using this as a stick to beat the Conservatives with, and while it is perfectly reasonable to criticise, what is their alternative? Labour has made no indication that they intend to restore legal aid should they find themselves back in power after the 2015 General Election.
The Treasury has been keen to cut the legal aid budget for some time. Previous governments disguised this with small reductions, but the current Tory-led coalition dispensed with such caution. Now legal aid is unavailable for most family law cases.
I have tweeted Shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Khan many times asking him if Labour intends to re-introduce legal aid. He has never troubled himself once to respond to me or to James Turner QC when he tweeted with the same question over the last weekend. It is rather hypocritical to make political capital out of an issue but dodge the bullet, don’t you think?
Quite frankly, legal aid has gone forever, regardless of who is living in 10 Downing Street.
To read the NAO’s report, click here.