Family Legal Aid Cuts Fatally Flawed

Government proposals  set to create misery and administrative chaos at taxpayer's expense.

Ill-considered, rushed and draconian Government proposals to cut legal aid risk creating devastating consequences for families and children.

Even some victims of domestic violence could be denied legal help, according to a local   family law expert The  coalition government consultation on legal aid reform closes on Monday and Philip Thorneycroft, Head of family law at local firm Wolferstans  claims that  the proposed cuts could also create spiraling costs for the taxpayer and create chaos in the family court system.

Mr Thorneycroft, who is a also a committee member of   Resolution in Devon  said: 'The Government's deeply-flawed proposed cuts could spell the end of family legal aid in England and Wales. They would certainly be a hammer blow for huge numbers of families and children, creating a society in which it is virtually impossible to gain free legal help when going through the pain of divorce and separation.

'The Government should shelve these quick-fix proposals, and take a more considered, constructive approach. That includes fully joined-up thinking with its own on-going Family Justice Review. Otherwise the Government risks creating an expensive mess that will cause misery for huge numbers of families and children.'

Resolution's major concerns include the fact that large groups of vulnerable people will no longer be eligible for legal help, including people wanting to divorce or whose partner wants to divorce them. The only option available to families who still qualify for legal aid will be mediation, which is not suitable for all cases.

'A fatal flaw in the government's proposal to only fund mediation to separating families is the fact that it requires both people to be willing to take part.' As a trained mediator and a collaborative lawyer  I am always encouraging Clients to look at alternative ways of dealing with their problems rather than going to Court - said Mr Thorneycroft . However iIf one parent is denying contact to another, or refusing to be reasonable about money they can simply refuse to attend mediation.

'The only option for those then left suffering injustice is to give up, or to represent themselves in court. No easy task at the best of times, let alone at a time of high emotional stress,' said Philip Thorneycroft.

Other large groups of people in need - including parents who need legal help in tracing or arranging contact with their children and cohabitants at risk of losing their home  will also no longer be eligible for legal aid, except when there has been recent domestic violence.

For such people the Government is using a definition of domestic violence that is needlessly and unhelpfully narrow, leaving people suffering domestic abuse particularly vulnerable and possibly having to represent themselves against their abuser in court.

Other key concerns are that all legal aid will only be accessed through a single government telephone helpline - a proposal that could have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities, young people and women and needs further thought and consultation.

Mt Thorneycroft also says that the Government's proposals could be the final nail in the coffin for many legal aid providers, leaving too few lawyers able to help the small numbers of vulnerable people who would still be protected by family legal aid. This has been experienced  in  Cornwall where clients have to travel a considerable distance to obtain help from a  legal aid provider. Mr Thorneycroft confirmed that he was aware that a number of firms in Plymouth had given up taking on legal aid cases in view of the anticipated changes.

The reduction of family legal aid cases will inevitably result in large numbers of people representing themselves in family courts, a problem that the Government admits it has not assessed. Increased numbers of people representing themselves in court will clog up the family court system, with cases taking much longer than at present.

Mr Thorneycroft confirmed that a number of firms in Plymouth were actively assisting  Resolution in campaigning to persuade the Government of the urgent need to review its controversial proposals, and ensure that legal aid genuinely does provide access to justice for the vulnerable.

For information and advice please contact Phil Thorneycroft on 01752 292310

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