The system will collapse for want of a soundbite

Family Law|October 5th 2015

Live tweeting of events seems to be a thing these days, and that includes legal events, in which the speeches or seminars are reduced to soundbites with a maximum of 140 characters. The tweeting is done, I’m sure, with the best possible intentions: i.e. to pass on some of the wisdom of the speakers to those who were unable to attend the event.

I’m afraid I’ve never been a fan of live-tweeting, because those soundbites often reduce what was actually said to little more than meaningless platitudes. At best they are not very informative and at worst they can be downright misleading. Far better, I feel, to wait until a proper report of the event has been written.

Having said all of the above, I’m now going to base this post upon some live tweeting that occurred on Saturday, in relation to an event at which no less a figure than the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby was speaking. Now, I’m sure he had some profound and interesting things to say, and in what follows I most certainly mean no offence to those who were live tweeting.

One of the tweets informed us of these words from the President: “the family justice system has a simple, stark choice – modernise or the system will collapse”. Of course, the big problem with live tweeting is that you don’t get the whole picture. I’m sure that the President must have elaborated upon his point, but those who weren’t there don’t know what else he said, and only have that short soundbite to go on.

Marilyn Stowe responded to the tweet by making the very good point that the system worked far better when lawyers were involved (i.e. prior to the legal aid cuts implemented by LASPO), and still would. To this came two responses, and I will deal with each in turn.

The first response, and I’m not sure whether this came from Sir James or the tweeter, was to the effect that legal advice was still very important, whether for dispute resolution, solicitor negotiation or court, but we must find new ways to deliver it. Marilyn replied to this, somewhat tongue in cheek I suspect, by suggesting that robots be used. But she has a point: just how else is legal advice to be delivered to people who no longer have access to a lawyer? You can have all the methods of general advice you want, whether online, in books or leaflets, but nothing replaces proper bespoke advice for individual clients and their particular problems. And no matter how that advice is delivered, that costs money.

The tweeter suggested that better use be made of technology and delegation, to ‘triage’ routine matters, presumably so that only non-routine matters were dealt with by qualified lawyers. But to this I would repeat my point: technology and lawyers cost money. We are talking about people who don’t have the money to spend on legal assistance. Prior to LASPO they were protected by legal aid which provided with that money. Now there is no money and the system is flooded by litigants in person struggling to know what to do, which is a primary reason for the impending collapse.

In the other response to Marilyn’s tweet the tweeter tried to read the mind of the President (probably quite accurately, by reference to other things he said) by suggesting that he would maintain that we can’t return to where we were prior to LASPO, and that it was therefore about “targeting limited resources and changing how we deliver services”. I agree entirely with Marilyn’s reply: “Meaningless words I’m pretty sure to every high street family lawyer.” I suspect that the tweeter was referring to the ‘unbundling’ of legal services (‘unbundling’ seems to be rapidly becoming another in-word, rather like ‘transparency’). However, unbundling is obviously only for those who can afford to pay for some legal services, not for those with no money at all, and is surely something that most practices have already considered already – I can remember putting together a package for clients who couldn’t afford a full service so that they could do most of their own divorce themselves, way back in the nineties.

I don’t dispute that the family justice system is not in a happy state, or that it is highly unlikely that the legal aid cuts imposed by LASPO will ever be reversed. However, to suggest that somehow the tragic effect of those cuts can be reversed simply by adopting different working practices is (with respect) surely nonsense.

Photo by  Scott Beale via Flickr 

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