I have made no secret of my views on the government’s scandalous near abolition of legal aid.
When the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, commonly known as LASPO, came into force on, highly appropriately, April Fool’s Day 2013, it closed the door on public funding for most family cases. Some – including commentators on this blog – have welcomed this development, asking, in effect, why should I pay for someone else to get divorced?
But this approach fails to grasp the reality of the situation. Yes, some family disputes are about choice and driving a personal agenda, but many – perhaps the majority – are not. Take, for example, the wealthy spouse who leaves their husband or wife and refuses a fair settlement. They will almost appear in the family court surrounded by a phalanx of solicitors and barristers, while their betrayed spouse hovers on the other side of the courtroom entirely on their own because they do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford a solicitor either.
What about the spouse who claims to be the victim of domestic violence, is granted legal aid as per the regulations, claims the house and then denies her estranged soon-to-be-ex access to their children, an ex who, like so many, cannot afford a lawyer but does not qualify for aid either?
And then there are the truly tragic cases like that of Kerrie Backhouse, whose partner carelessly poisoned their son with a morphine pill and refused to agree to agree to her scattering his ashes while he served his jail term. Kerrie too could not get legal aid and could not afford a lawyer, Her case consequently and predictably languished until I intervened and asked one of our solicitors to help her on a pro bono basis.
Sadly, Mrs Backhouse died just months later.
How do such imbalances of power serve justice? Answer – they do not. But it seems the current government does not especially care. And now, not content it seems with hindering justice through the erosion of legal aid, it has announced plans to close 86 county, family and tribunal courts around the country.
Justice Minister Shailesh Vara insists that 97 per cent of us will still be able to “reach their required court within an hour by car” after the closures. To which there are of course two responses:
1/ How do they know?
2/ What about the remaining three per cent? What are they supposed to do? Three per cent of 56 million – the approximate population of England and Wales – is 1,680,000. Even if Mr Vara’s claim is correct, it seems quite a lot of people will still be left struggling to reach a courtroom if and when they need to.
The government insists these closures will make the justice system more efficient – in other words, it is all about cutting still more costs. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, they seem to know the cost of every element in the British legal system but the value of none.
I committed my first thoughts to Twitter when I heard the news: the odds are now against the average litigant in this country. This is not the justice system I joined.