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Advice clinics are all very worthy, but it just ain’t the same

Monday 1st April 2013 must rank as the darkest day for family law in this country. It was the day when the concept of equal access to law for all was swept away. From that day only those with money were entitled to proper legal advice and representation. The rest of society became an underclass, left to their own devices as they tried to navigate the mysterious seas of our family justice system.

Of course, there are many good people who are not prepared to stand idly by when they witness hardship. Since that dark day there have been many initiatives created with the intention of providing legal help for those who no longer have access to it. The initiatives have taken various different forms, and the latest phenomenon seems to be the court-based clinic.

Last month it was announced that a pro bono advice scheme is to be launched at Bristol Civil and Family Justice Centre from November. This has now been followed with the news that a free advice clinic has been launched at Cardiff County Court. The clinic is a collaboration between the court, local lawyers and universities. It will provide initial legal advice, information and advocacy and will run between 9.30am and 1.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which are the family hearing days.

Now, this is all very worthy and I have nothing but admiration for those who are prepared to give their time for free (I did so myself on many occasions throughout my career). However, and with the greatest respect, a few hours a week is just not the same as providing proper full-time representation, as was possible when we had a full legal aid system. A bit of advice and assistance will help, but it will hardly level the playing field for those litigants whose opposite numbers have the benefit of full legal representation.

And just how good can that help be? To provide proper representation in all but the most straightforward cases involves an enormous investment of time: interviewing the client and witnesses, obtaining expert evidence, preparing documentation and so on. How can a limited pro bono scheme provide anything approaching the level of help that used to be provided?

And then there is the problem of both parties in a case having no representation. The recent figures from the Ministry of Justice indicated that neither party is represented in about 30 per cent of all private law children cases. Obviously, in such cases both parties are going to be wanting legal advice when they attend court. Now, the same lawyer advising both sides will obviously involve a conflict of interest. Accordingly, the clinic will always have to have two lawyers available to provide advice. Will they have the resources to do this?

Then there is the point that I have made here previously: are all these well-meaning people doing the government’s dirty work for them? Every minute of free time given by a lawyer or academic makes it easier for the government to ‘get away’ with its decimation of the legal aid system by filling, even if only in a partial way, the huge advice gap left by the abolition of legal aid. Why should the government ever consider restoring legal aid, or even funding limited legal help for the less well off in society, if others are going to solve the problem for them?

Lastly, and it’s another point I’ve made previously: why should people give their time for free? Why should family lawyers be expected to do something for nothing? Contrary to popular belief most are not ‘fat cats’ – especially those who do legal aid work.

Lawyers in private practice receive fee income for the work they do, thus it makes a direct difference to their bottom line if they are not doing fee-earning work – unlike, for example, a teacher, who receives the same income whatever they are doing. Lawyers will therefore be worse off if they spend time that they could be using for fee-earning on pro bono work. Who else in society is expected to give up their time and income in this way?

Don’t get me wrong: I welcome these advice clinics and all of the other initiatives to provide legal help for those in need. I just regret that those people will still be worse off, and feel greatly saddened that, for the sake of very limited savings to government spending, we find ourselves in this position.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. wistilia says:

    Priced at £250 an hour – Not sure you can say solicitors are underpaid.

  2. Luke says:

    “Monday 1st April 2013 must rank as the darkest day for family law in this country. It was the day when the concept of equal access to law for all was swept away.”
    Complete and utter nonsense again John – and it just shows how horribly out of touch you are with working people.
    Before 1st April 2013 AND afterwards our terrible legal system forces working people to either spend their life savings defending themselves or go unrepresented – and Legal Aid often made it worse as one party could ‘bleed the other party dry’ until they surrendered – often with the collusion of the court system. Everybody was on a ‘nice little earner’ except the poor sap defending themselves and the taxpayer.
    Our adversarial system is for the rich and for some lawyers to make a fortune – for the average working man and woman it is a disaster.

  3. Andrew says:

    If ever we get legal aid back in MUST (in family cases) be laid down that if one party is assisted so is the other – regardless of means or merits.
    It must also be laid down that the unassisted party who succeeds against an assisted party gets costs against the legal aid fund – regardless of means – unless of course the successful party was compulsorily insured.
    Article 6 requires no less. One of these days a party accused of d.v. and found not to have committed it after paying for representation against an assisted complaining party will get a declaration that the present law is incompatible with the HRA.

  4. Wistilia says:

    Luke is of course bang on.

    Cases are going through the courts far more quickly since the 1st April 2013 Legal Aid reforms.

    Far less cases are going to court.

    Judges are being more inquisitorial rather than relying on adversarial Lawyers championing for their clients.

    The reforms have been a huge improvement as many of us who have been around for a long time can vouch for.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Both
      Disagree. Take this shocking case. Had they been fully represented with proper funding in place it may never have happened. And had the adoption process been slowed that too may have avoided this outcome. Speed doesn’t equate with justice.

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