· Family lawyers warn of the devastating impact of legal aid changes
· Thousands of children may lose contact with one of their parents
· Welfare spending could rise as parents may not receive fair settlements
Ahead of the House of Lords’ scrutiny of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill this week, Resolution, the association of 6,000 family lawyers and professionals, has warned of its potentially devastating consequences.
At the end of last year, Resolution surveyed its members who undertake legal aid work to discover the true impact of the proposals on families and children. The vast majority (87%) say that LASPO would mean that less than 25% of people they currently help would still qualify for legal aid.
The social implications would be considerable: the survey also found that 57% believe a parent risks losing contact with their child in at least half of their cases. Based on the surveyed lawyers alone, this represents well over 4,000 children.
LASPO would also withdraw legal aid from many parents trying to get back children who have been abducted within the UK, even though 91% of those surveyed believe there is a risk of abduction in at least some of their cases.
“It is clear that the Government’s proposed legal aid cuts could bring devastating consequences. Many of those currently eligible for legal aid would seriously struggle to obtain the legal advice and support that could ensure that they continue to see their children after a difficult separation”, said David Allison, Chair of Resolution.
“The changes also risk increasing the nation’s benefits bill. Many of our members say that the majority of their clients would not know what financial settlement they are entitled to, which could see them left dependent on the welfare state and benefits.
“Resolution is committed to the constructive resolution of issues arising from separation, through options such as mediation, and the organisation welcomes the Government’s desire to see fewer family cases going through the court system. However, there needs to be support for those for whom mediation is inappropriate, which, according to the survey, could be in as many as 40% of cases.
“We are concerned that, by focusing so heavily on mediation, the Government will punish those for whom it simply won’t work through no fault of their own – for example, if they have an abusive or uncooperative partner.”
The inevitable increase in people representing themselves in court (known as litigants in person) will add even more pressure on a court system that is facing the closure of 40% of courts and the loss of 15,000 jobs. In the experience of Resolution’s members, cases take longer when one party is representing themselves – nearly half (48%) said it takes more than twice as long.
David Allison concluded: “We understand the need to reduce the legal aid bill along with the rest of the public sector. However, we urge the Government to reconsider other measures, such as extending the statutory charge to cover other areas of family law, to ensure that access to justice remains available for people when they need it the most.”
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· 267 of Resolution’s 2,500 members who work in legal aid took part in the survey.
· They work on an average of 51 cases, representing over 15,000 children between them.
· Well over half (58%) of those surveyed earn less than £35,000; a fifth (20%) less than £25,000 (the UK’s median annual salary is £26,564).
· 87% of members say less than 25% of their current cases would qualify for legal aid
· 55% say they would do less private family legal aid work.
· 31% would do less public family legal aid.
· 57% of our members believe a parent risks losing contact with their child in at least half of their cases – that’s 4,348 children.
· 91% believe there is a risk of abduction in at least some of their cases.
· 41% of members’ current legal aid cases (5,416 out of a total 13,315 cases) have been assessed as unsuitable for mediation.
· Nearly half (42%) believe that appropriate legal advice has meant that at least half their cases settled without going to court.
· Almost three quarters (74%) think that their ability to negotiate with the other party outside of court means that, of those cases that have gone to court, at least half will be settled before the final hearing.
· Nearly all (94%) say that that 75% of their clients would not be able to reach a settlement without legal advice.
· 96% are concerned that 75% of their clients would not know if the settlement was fair.
· In the experience of nearly all those asked (99%), cases take longer when one party is representing themselves – nearly half (49%) said it takes more than twice as long.
Notes to editors
Resolution promotes a non-confrontational, constructive approach to resolving family disputes: http://www.resolution.org.uk/
Case studies are available on request. Spokespeople are available to provide further comment on all aspects of the current Legal Aid Bill.
 Letter from Anne Beasley, Ministry of Justice, August 2010
 ONS Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2010