Amongst the media coverage about public sector spending cuts, one item that has received relatively little attention has been cuts to the legal aid and court service budgets. These cuts are a major source of concern, not least as a result of the very serious impact they are likely to have on the most vulnerable and underprivileged in society.
Over the last few months, the Government’s controversial legal aid reforms have been going through Parliament. The Government is hoping to save £350 million a year through these cuts.
In the family law sphere, the impact of the cuts could be very severe indeed. The proposal is essentially that, with the exception of care work and for people who have been victims of domestic violence, legal aid will no longer be available to clients who need to resolve matters through the courts.
The Government will continue to fund legal aid in mediation. Whilst as a family mediator I welcome the support for mediation as a process that benefits many families, it is clearly not going to be suitable in every case. Equally, it is very important that clients are able to receive representation from independent solicitors whilst attending mediation – it is very unclear whether there will be sufficient provision available to ensure this happens.
The impact of the legal aid cuts will be that across the country, tens of thousands of people who cannot afford legal representation will be forced to act for themselves in person in relation to financial issues arising upon divorce or in relation to issues relating to their children. Such people may struggle to represent themselves without legal help, creating serious risks, for example that children may lose contact with one of their parents or be subjected to unfair financial arrangements that harm their upbringing.
I believe that the changes proposed under the bill, which is due to receive Royal Assent later this year, will fundamentally impact on access to justice, which is one of the bedrocks of a civil society. The courts will inevitably find themselves clogged up with unrepresented litigants at the very time when court budgets are coming under severe strain as a result of further cuts. This is likely to lead to significant delays in the court system, as people seeking to represent themselves are not familiar with processes and cases will therefore inevitably take much longer.
President of the Chichester and District Law Society