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Government attacks family Legal Aid

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Fewer people are to have access to advice from qualified solicitors in cases involving contact with children or their custody after a divorce, if proposals put forward by the government to slash Legal Aid are introduced.

 

The government is proposing restricting the family Legal Aid budget and in turn the access to justice for those who are often most in need and regularly the most vulnerable in society. All this at a time when the government is pouring hundreds of billions of £pounds into the banking sector and ensuring that those who are primarily responsible for the present economic collapse manage to keep their obscenely large pensions.

 

It was obvious from the moment that the government started shelling out £billions to the banks that cut backs would have to be made elsewhere to balance the books.  The Royal Bank of Scotland lost £24 billion last year through inept management.  The family Legal Aid budget for the year is approximately 2.5 percent of that figure but it is here where the cuts are being made.”

 

The government professes to want a quality and professional service for legal aid clients; however the reality as quite different: “These are two adjectives that one will not be able to use to describe the family Legal Aid system if the government’s proposals go through.”

 

The latest government plans surround plans to cut barristers’ fees for legally aided family disputes, with the aim of cutting £6.5 million from the legal aid bill in 2010.  One of the proposals forming part of this and which is causing much consternation amongst the legal profession, is the bid not to pay solicitors’ for preparation work for hearings.

 

It is absurd not to give solicitors the opportunity to prepare for the all-important Court hearing and give the client the best chance of a right and favourable outcome – it would be quite nice to turn up for Court having not had to spend hours reading papers and preparing cross examination the night before.”  

 

There is concern about there being a standard and indeed modest fee for each hearing:  “Solicitors will get paid the same amount of money whether they are in Court for two minutes, two hours or on some occasions two days.  I am extremely concerned there is going to be financial pressure put upon solicitors by the government not to fight cases at Court because it will be unprofitable for them to do so.” 

 

Government proposals also extend to not paying solicitors for the time incurred in travelling to court: “Whilst this does not affect my firm directly as we have offices in very close proximity to the main Courts in Birmingham, for those solicitors in smaller towns around the country, it does beg the question over whether they will be willing to spend sometimes up to two hours per day travelling to and from Court if they are not paid to do so. 

 

There are already ‘Legal Aid deserts’ appearing in pockets of the country; even in the West Midlands we are finding that clients are travelling 10 to 15 miles to instruct us, simply because they cannot find a solicitor in their local area who will take on legal aid work,”

 

Lord Bach, the Legal Aid Minister, has now instructed that child protection cases would be ring-fenced from the cuts and in some cases would benefit from higher fees.  “I do not really know how Lord Bach can say this. In complicated cases relating to children, there are often concerns that the children are being emotionally harmed by one or other of the parents.  Under the Family Proceedings Rules a Guardian ad Litem can be appointed by the Court with a view to representing the children’s interests.  As there is a lack of resources elsewhere, Judges have regularly been appointing experienced family lawyers, often with very successful outcomes for the children.  One of the proposals is to close this ‘loophole’, but how on earth can that be putting the children’s interests first?”

 

In the current economic climate, there are also concerns that many solicitors are simply giving up taking on this type of Legal Aid work in favour of instructions where they can make a profit.  “Thousands of solicitors have already given up doing legal aid work over the past 10 years because they cannot make it pay. Those who remain at the moment – both solicitors and Barristers at the Bar – are the hardcore that joined the legal profession not to become ‘wealthy’ but to help normal people in times of dire need. 

 

“The Legal Aid family lawyers who still remain are an ageing breed. It is becoming more and more difficult to replace them because young qualifying solicitors are shying away from an area of law which they feel seems to have no real future.

 

“Whilst my firm remains committed to Legal Aid work, if the government continues to attack us there will come a time when even firms of our size and scope of legal expertise will be forced to consider its position and commitment to Legal Aid.  And for a firm with a long history and fantastic reputation, which frequently works on very high profile cases, often involving child protection, this would be a great loss. It is disappointing that the work we do isn’t more valued by the government.”

 

 

 

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Written by Andrew Hodges

April 24, 2009 at 9:47 am

Posted in Compliance

Tagged with , ,

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