December 28, 2012

Why Legal Aid demise is bad news for divorce

Decorations are down, the Christmas cake is just crumbs and children are heading back to school.  For many couples who have put on a brave face and limped on in struggling relationships over the festive season, January signifies the end of their marriage.

Traditionally lawyers see an increase in couples starting divorce proceedings on D-day – usually the first day back at school, which this year falls on 7 January.

In past years, separating couples may have had access to free or affordable family law advice and representation through the Legal Aid system.  However, from 1 April 2013 people will no longer receive Legal Aid for divorce, finance or children issues.

Financial matters and issues relating to children, such as residency or contact, usually require a skilled family lawyer.  Cutting off Legal Aid means that the most vulnerable and least wealthy members of our society will not have access to the kind of expert advice that can resolve such cases in the quickest way possible and with the least damage to families.

The Government seems to think that divorce is easy – a tick box exercise with a Decree Absolute at the end.  They champion mediation– all well and good if both parties are willing and committed to that process.

But what if mediation fails and the couple turns to litigation?  The danger is that divorcing couples will try to ‘self-help’ and represent themselves in family courts where they don’t know the protocols.  I can see this putting an enormous strain on the courts with proceedings dragged out, judges having to dig deeper into financial matters and everyone becoming increasingly frustrated and intolerant.

In my view the changes to Legal Aid are false economy.  Rather than saving the Government money and speeding up the divorce process, the demise of Legal Aid for family matters will cost more in the long run.  I predict that family courts will be under enormous strain as divorcing couples try to represent themselves.  There will be a knock on effect on other public sector services and budgets.  For example, people too depressed to work and seeking help from their GPs; unhappy children playing truant from school and even increases in crime if the problems faced by troubled children are left unresolved.

Hundreds of thousands of families will be left in a legal wilderness after 1 April – has the Government counted the real financial, emotional and social cost of their legislation?

Will you be affected by the changes in Legal Aid? What are you views? – Let us know with a comment below, e-mail us, or send us a tweet @HelpWithDivorce.