Access to Justice Axed?

From 1 April 2013, accessing free legal advice on family issues will be tough. Legal Aid cuts mean that most private family law matters (divorce, money and children disputes) will fall outside the scope of work for which legal aid has previously been available.

If you need advice and are currently entitled to legal aid, do not delay; any application for funding must reach the Legal Services Commission (LSC) before Easter (Friday 29 March) to fall within current eligibility criteria.

After 1 April, the LSC will be replaced by the Civil Legal Advice (CLA), which will assess eligibility in family matters on very strict criteria. You can check your eligibility at www.gov.uk/legal-aid; alternatively the CLA will run an advice line on 0845 345 4345. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of people will not qualify.

Legal aid will still be available for public family law cases. Where a local authority wishes to take a child into care, legal aid will be available to challenge that decision. For private cases, legal aid will continue only in the following, limited situations:

Victims of domestic abuse (or forced marriage)

Various protection orders will still be available via legal aid. One bit of good news is that there will be no upper income limit for eligibility, although a contribution may be required where there is sufficient disposable income. Also, the definition of ‘victim’ will be widened.

Private family law cases where there is a risk of domestic abuse

Funding may also be available for other family disputes if appropriate evidence of the alleged risk is provided in line with the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012.

Private law children cases where there is a risk of child abuse

Again, appropriate evidence of the alleged risk must be provided.

Child parties in private family law cases

Where children are independently represented, for example in a dispute between parents as to where a child will live, that child will receive legal aid.

Child abduction and international family maintenance

There are various reciprocal arrangements between us and various other jurisdictions, requiring legal aid to be provided to people meeting the criteria.

Family judges are bracing themselves for a sharp increase in unrepresented parties. In cutting the legal aid budget to save public money, it is possible that court administration will become so expensive that overall spending will actually increase.

Time will tell; in the meantime, what should people do if they require legal advice, but no longer qualify for legal aid?

At Manchester Civil Justice Centre, family lawyers’ from Resolution are running a free advice clinic. Other lawyers offer free initial advice, and thereafter flexible payment options. However, if you cannot afford ongoing legal fees Pro Bono UK has information on accessing free advice at www.probonouk.net, as does the National Pro Bono Centre at www.nationalprobonocentre.org.uk.

Undoubtedly, these are uncertain times for family law. Whoever chose April Fools’ Day to kick start the new regime must have a singular sense of humour.