WALES/ENGLAND – Legal aid cuts will create distrubing new landscape for families, campaigners warn

The Government’s planned cuts to legal aid present a ”disturbing new landscape” which will be ”bad for children, bad for women and bad for families”, campaigners said today.

Launching a manifesto for family justice, the campaigners urged the Government to rethink its plans ahead of its Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill being considered by MPs next week.

Stephen Cobb QC, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said: ”We have come together as a broad cross section of organisations deeply concerned by the consequences of the Government’s proposals.

”The Prime Minister stated that he wanted a family test for all domestic policy. Clearly nobody has applied that test to this bill. The civil legal aid cuts will be bad for children, bad for women and bad for families.”

He added: ”We are facing a disturbing new landscape in which 600,000 people will no longer receive legal aid, 68,000 children will be affected by the removal of legal aid in family cases, 54,000 fewer people will be represented in the family courts annually and there will be 75% fewer private law cases in court.”

Measures being introduced in the bill would also see more people going to court on their own without legal representation, a move senior judges have warned could increase both costs and delays.

Mr Cobb added: ”We face the very real prospect that many children and women who have been victims of domestic abuse will have to endure the further trauma of being cross-examined by their alleged perpetrator, who will not be eligible for legal aid.

”It is not too late for the Government to change its approach. If it really has the interests of families in mind, then it has to think again.”

Campaigners backing the call for a re-think include the Association of Lawyers for Children, the Bar Council, Caada (Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse), the Children’s Commissioner, the Family Law Bar Association, Gingerbread, Liberty, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Resolution and Women’s Aid.

Their manifesto urges MPs to protect vulnerable women and children, saying that Government plans for increased use of mediation to settle disputes will fail to resolve many family justice cases.

It also questions whether the Government’s plans will help cut costs or ”in fact, cost more and lead to poor outcomes”.

It comes after the head of the Women’s Institute warned that women were suffering under coalition plicies.

Ruth Bond, the chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, said David Cameron is not listening to women, who have to “push and fight” to gain recognition.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, she criticised Mr Cameron’s maledominated Cabinet, the Coalition’s “chilling” decision to cut legal aid in divorce cases and to scrap an organisation that represents women in Whitehall. “The way they engage with women is not terribly good,” she said. “I don’t know if they listen to us really, quite frankly.”

Earlier this month, Mr Cameron apologised for remarks he had made in the House of Commons that were seen as patronising to female MPs.

Women are also judged to be the hardest hit by cuts in public spending because of a reduction in childcare support, and because a disproportionate number work for the state.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: ”If there is evidence of domestic violence, child abuse or forced marriage, we are absolutely clear that legal aid must remain available.

”That’s why £400 million is available each year for these cases.

”However, at more than £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. It is also a system that has grown to encourage lengthy acrimonious and sometimes unnecessary court proceedings at the taxpayers’ expense.

”That’s why we feel it’s right to encourage families, where appropriate, to resolve their disputes without going to court.

”Mediation can be cheaper, quicker and less acrimonious than court proceedings.’

He added that the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill was ”broad and comprehensive”.

”We are asking for objective evidence of domestic violence, to best target taxpayers’ money and to avoid the risk of false allegations,” he said.

”Other types of evidence suggested are more subjective. However, a court can take into account any relevant factors, and where it makes a finding of fact that domestic violence has occurred, this will trigger legal aid.”

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