19th November 2012

The last few weeks have been extremely busy with me as usual running from court to various meetings back to court desperately trying to catch up on paperwork all of the time.

It was not until earlier this week when I sat down to prepare for our monthly family department meeting that I really began to consider the impact on our work of the Legal Aid changes due to come in April 2013.

I had asked two members of staff – Roiya, a solicitor and Nikitta, a paralegal just out of UNN to look at the impact on our clients and consider what we need to put in place to make sure that we can provide a good service to them in the future.

In April there will still be the same volume of people requiring assistance with their various different family problems but we will be far less able to help them. The reason for this is the government&s cuts in Public Funding.

From April no one will be able to get publicly funded i.e. free legal advice in relation to their family problems (unless these problems relate to child protection or domestic violence) no matter how serious the problems are, regardless of

  • The Issues Concerned (divorce, disputes about children, disputes about finances) or
  • Their financial circumstances

The only exception is if they can evidence that domestic violence has been perpetrated on them (or a relevant child) by the other party in their application within the last two years. The government require evidence of this by way of a recent police conviction, caution or a recent finding in the court or medical evidence. It seems to me that these are very difficult conditions to fulfil particularly for somebody vulnerable, in crisis and without benefit of legal advice.

At Ben Hoare Bell we have no doubt that there will be the same number of people coming to us for help but without payment we cannot help them because Legal Aid rates are so low we have nothing to subsidise any &free work& that we do.

“The government believes that the gap will be filled by voluntary organisations and charities.”

I think that the government believes that the gap will be filled by voluntary organisations and charities. I am not sure that this will be the case and even more convinced after a recent meeting which me, Roiya and Nikita trooped off to last week.

This meeting took place at UNN who are themselves a provider of pro bono (free) legal services to the public. It was also attended by various other voluntary organisations and representatives from the Court system. There were of course representatives from a few local legal firms all of whom will be concerned about what will happen in April.

The worry is not just about how we can continue operating as a Legal Aid firm providing services to the vulnerable without actually being able to do any work for them. There are also other implications.

“People will bring ill thought out cases before the courts because they do not know what the legal points are to argue.”

The courts will find it more and more difficult to deal with cases effectively when so many parties are likely to be unrepresented. Without the benefit of legal advice people will bring ill thought out cases before the courts because they do not know what the legal points are to argue. They may have unrealistic expectations which will not be met.

All in all there are going to be a lot of frustrated people clogging up the court system. We will just have to wait to see how it all pans out in April but every organisation dealing in this area is having funding cut so everybody is trying to offload work onto others. There are less and less people likely to be able to take this work and effectively help the most vulnerable in society.

I am hoping next week I will be feeling a little more cheerful about things. I suppose I should at least take comfort from the thought that we are at least trying to plan for the changes so hopefully we will be prepared!