The family court has never been more in need of Legal Aid funding than it is now. The government continues to cut Legal Aid funding and put at a great injustice those who are earning just slightly more than the means test criteria.
It is these individuals who are put at a disadvantage, as their monthly earnings exceed the threshold even though they do not earn enough to be able to afford legal representation. The Legal Aid statistics from April-June 2012 (Pre-LASPO) shows that around 83,000 family cases were assisted using Legal Aid funds. Compare that figure to the same time two years later, in April-June 2014 where a shocking 34,000 cases were assisted using Legal Aid support.
In support of the government to aid the family court is Head of the Family Law Bar Association, Philip Marshall QC. He firmly believes that the government must “act now and inject urgently needed additional funds into the family justice system”.
Within most family courts, there will be some form of charity that offers help and advice for Litigants in Persons. These include the Personal Support Unit (PSU), Mackenzie Friends and Free Legal Advice Clinics. The PSU alone has assisted with around 15,800 divorce cases and around 4,800 child related cases within the 2015-2016 financial year. But should a family in dire crisis have to rely on a charity for support and guidance?
As with any field of law, each case must be looked at individually and assessed on its own merits. There are cases that can be simple and can be dealt with on a first hearing, for example two co-operating parents discussing a child’s living arrangement following a separation.
Then there are the more complex cases. A relocation case, for example, involving two parents of polar views and neither willing to compromise, can be a difficult case not only for those involved but for the presiding judges to be able to assess all the relevant information and come to a conclusion that is ultimately in the child’s best interest.
Family law litigants typically deal with trying circumstances. In family law, in a child abduction situation, the family members may not know for months or even years where that child is – one can only imagine the effect this would have on a family. The court system and the government should not abandon those who may be facing emotional and psychological turmoil.
If Legal Aid funding was to be increased, it would benefit the family courts immensely. As those who have complex cases and lives would be able to get the legal representation they so desperately need and deserve. When a family has to attend court it is because they are in crisis. It is therefore crucial that the court has the resources to support them.
By Saira Shani