Anna Hunter, Specialist Children’s solicitor with Leading North East Niche Family Law solicitors, Major Family Law states in the North East Times following the demise of legal aid for almost all family matters in 2013, a recent survey carried out by the Bar Council, the governing body of barristers in England & Wales, has found that many of their members are questioning the viability of a career at the bar and actively considering whether they have a long-term future.
The survey shows a fall in case volumes for 72% of family barristers with fee income falling for 69% of family legal aid practitioners.
Whilst the financial security of lawyers is unlikely to attract much sympathy, the implications of the current trend are more wide-reaching than may seem obvious.
The Citizens Advice Bureau has reported that nine out of ten Bureaux (92%) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year.
The CAB notes how it is now extremely hard to get legal aid concerning issues such as relationship breakdown, and the length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have had there been earlier intervention.
In the year before the Legal Aid changes came into effect, Citizens Advice Bureaux provided specialist advice in approximately 136,000 cases (including areas other than family law). The legal changes have resulted in support being withdrawn for approximately 120,000 of these cases.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, believes the cuts to legal aid have created an advice gap. She says, “Modern life presents increasingly complex problems and people need help to understand, adjust to, and in many cases challenge decisions affecting their income, housing and work status.
All of this information comes at the same time that Government figures show a collapse in mediation attendance. The Government’s decision to withdraw public funding for legal advice in almost all family cases was motivated at least in part by a policy of wanting to encourage separating couples to resolve their differences by means other than recourse to court proceedings.
Conversely, however, a significant result of this policy has been an increase in the number of litigants in person in the family courts, many not representing themselves through choice.
Chairman of the Bar Council, Nicholas Lavender QC said: ‘These changes pose a significant threat to effective access to justice for some of the most vulnerable members of society”.
Lavender is among some of the most powerful lawyers in the country who have warned of the dangers of untrained, uninsured and unregulated professional McKenzie friends, who have emerged to fill the gap as people are left without access to proper legal advice and representation.
MPs are also concerned at the evidence given on the alarmingly low figures for the grants of exceptional legal aid funding, complaining that the scheme is complex and confusing, the application form takes hours to complete, the threshold is too high, and the Legal Aid Agency is not exercising its discretion.
The situation appears grim. Another recently commissioned survey showed that only just over half of all (non-legal) individuals questioned were aware of mediation as a process for resolving their family disputes. The Court system is increasingly overburdened with a case load driven almost entirely by unrepresented individuals with little or no understanding of the law or the process.
There is no complete substitute for expert legal advice and representation, but that is now a luxury which many simply cannot afford. Further investigation, research and lobbying is pending to adapt the system to the best possible working model, and we all await the developments with baited breath – legal professionals and lay clients alike.
Anna Hunter is an Associate at Major Family Law, the Divorce and Family Law Specialists, 12 West Road, Ponteland, Newcastle Upon Tyne. T: 01661 82 45 82 www.majorfamilylaw.co.uk. Twitter: @majorfamilylaw”