Changes to Legal Aid and the affect on families undergoing separation
The inevitable decline of any support for families undergoing separations or difficulties is continuing apace. The courts are inundated with litigants in person who are faced with representing themselves with little or no understanding of the law that they are hoping to invoke. The fact that there is no legal aid for people who could previously have received at least enough advice to equip them to make viable decisions about their family without the need to go to court, means that at a time when they are most vulnerable they either do nothing or desperately attempt to navigate through an overburdened court system. The former stacks up problems for the future and may mean that countless children simply lose contact with one parent. The latter is formidable as they are effectively being asked to join in a serious game without being told the rules.
Over the last few months many providers of legally funded mediation have given up the unequal struggle. The combination of the cutting of fees to mediators for a significant proportion of their work which they are now expected to do for free, the onerous requirements of the Legal Aid Agency both for eligibility for clients and fulfilling administrative duties means that the income simply does not cover the cost of providing a service. One of the biggest mediation providers Bristol Family Mediators Association have sadly closed their doors on legally aided funded mediation. On 7 March the largest mediation provider in the north of England will be doing the same. Very few providers remain.
Those with a legal aid contract are mediators who have a wealth of experience, undertaking 50 -100 mediations a year and who are used to helping those of modest means to make agreements about their families futures for a remarkably low cost and often reducing acrimony so that they can continue as a functional, albeit separated family with the focus on their children. Once dismantled these highly effective providers will be lost.
The government needs to turn the tide and provide sufficient funding so that those who need it are funded to receive advice and help to resolve their difficulties themselves. This is infinitely cheaper than maintaining courts and trying to keep sufficient CAFCASS officers to field the huge increase in people turning to litigation unnecessarily. The Courts could ensure that every court fee application included an element to cover the cost of a referral to a mediator for an information meeting before they embark on the court process. Previously 69% of those referred decided to undertake mediation rather than go to court. That coupled with a realistic payment to mediators for their work under a legal aid contract would not just turn the tide but improve on the situation before the Government’s disastrous changes to what was a highly effective service.
Accredited Mediator, LLB, Solicitor, Collaborative Lawyer