Changes to Legal Aid for family law issues are imminent.

From April 2013, Legal Aid will not be as readily available for families to deal with divorce, financial children matters.  Funding for parents involved in care proceedings remains unchanged.

Family Legal Aid will not disappear in its entirety but is to be severely limited and will only be accessible to a heavily reduced number of the population.

Presently, so long as a person is financially eligible and a case has sufficient merit, Legal Aid is openly available to all.  Those tests are to continue but additionally from the beginning of April 2013, for the most part, an application for Legal Aid will only be possible if the Applicant has been the victim of domestic violence.  It will fall to the Applicant to provide evidence of that domestic violence before an application is made.  Any funding granted will not, however, cover any cost associated with gathering that evidence and therefore this will fall to the Applicant to meet.

The definition of domestic violence to be adopted by the Legal Services Commission from April 2013 is, on the face of it, quite wide. Domestic violence is detailed as:

“‘¦ any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (whether psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between individuals who are associated with each other.’

However, the difficulty I anticipate may arise, is how an Applicant secures evidence of domestic violence when documentary evidence of it is required evidence and is limited to:-

a.    A conviction or Police Caution in respect of a domestic violence offence.
b.    Evidence of criminal proceedings for a domestic violence offence.
c.    Evidence from certain previous Court proceedings.
d.    A letter from Social Services.
e.    A letter or a Report from a domestic violence support organisation.
f.    A letter or medical report from a General Practitioner.

It is estimated that up to 85% of cases which are currently funded by the Legal Services Commission will fall outside of the scope of Legal Aid as a result of the changes.  The majority of separating spouses and parents embroiled in residence and contact disputes, if domestic violence has not formed a part in their relationship, will in the future be expected to deal with the matter directly between themselves and indeed represent themselves in Court proceedings if they cannot afford legal representation.

Legal representation may not be cheap but a Resolution trained family lawyer will help parents work together to avoid Court proceedings wherever possible.  Avoiding or missing out on early legal advice could in the long run be a false economy both financially and emotionally.  I feel the Legal Aid cuts arriving in April 2013 are themselves a false economy.  The Legal Aid budget will be reduced but undoubtedly this will create pressures on public spending elsewhere.

The issue of Legal Aid for family disputes is a matter upon which we will all form our own view as to whether this should or should not be available.  Can it be right that Legal Help will not be available to all when people are at their most vulnerable?  Will this leave some feuding couples to each other’s mercy?  More importantly, what of the impact on the children potentially caught in the middle?