The clock is very much ticking for people in England and Wales to get legal aid in relation to most family law matters and the media seem not to be taking it seriously at all.
We are less than 8 weeks away, from the biggest change in the provision for legal services in 70 years and yet the media and printed press are silent.
Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, 2012, from 1st April this year, legal aid will no longer be available for most divorce, financial and private law children cases, such as disputes between parents over residence and contact arrangements for their children. Unless there has been domestic violence, people will either have to go to court on their own or find the money to pay lawyers,
The coalition government has introduced these changes in order to cut the legal aid budget by £350 million per year in accordance with their deficit reduction plan.
The result of this withdrawal will result in the overwhelming majority of people who are currently able to obtain and access legal advice and representation, no longer being able to do so and yet does the average person on the street have a clue what is going on?
Figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice under the freedom of information act showed that in 2011 34,000 people filed for divorce without representation. That figure represented % of all divorces. it does not deal with people who needed help with contact and residence cases, or financial disputes which make up the vast majority of cases in the courts.
Public funding will still be available for people involved in public law children cases, for example proceedings where Social Services are involved with children. For those who financially qualify, there will also be funding for cases of domestic violence.
Currently it is estimated that 250,000 people per year receive family advice, assistance and representation under legal aid. It is anticipated that after the changes come in, this number will decrease to as few as 40,000 people. That means
The government hopes that the changes will not only cut the current £2.2 billion legal aid bill, but also encourage people to resolve matters more amicably through services such as mediation. This is all very well, but no one knows about it and the Government have not publicised the changes at all.
These cuts will limit access to justice for the majority of the population and could cause the courts to be full of people representing themselves as a result of not being able to afford legal representation.
The broadsheets have over the last year, published articles and the BBC have done a few small pieces about this, but the vast majority of people in the country do not read the Guardian.
The legal industry is only now noticing the growth of diy divorce websites, despite the earliest service having launched way back in 1999 and the concern that was recently expressed by the legal Ombudsman, that the legal aid changes will see a rise in people opting for cheaper, poor quality service out of concern that other options are unaffordable, is in fact misplaced. The majority of complaints to them relate to communication problems and costs issues.
However, the legal profession are a decade too late in raising this issue now in 2013 as online divorce websites such as Divorce-Online have been in existence since 1999, quietly and efficiently providing services to clients who cannot afford a solicitor. in 2012 Divorce Online accounted for 14 % of the unrepresented divorce market. In 2013 we anticipate that our market share will only increase as people are turned away from Solicitors offices and advice centres, because they cannot get low cost family law services.
The criticism from lawyers is that divorce websites are impersonal, don’t have insurance and can cause problems later on with finances etc. This simply is scaremongering by a profession who have spent the last decade, sitting in their gilded offices, overcharging and wondering why their core business was ebbing away.
Divorce-Online as a responsible and professional legal service, advises clients of their options and the consequences of any actions they take in a divorce in relation to how it may affect their finances in the future, but we don’t charge £200 pounds per hour or £20 a letter.
The current business model of the high street Solicitor is expensive and unaffordable for all but the wealthy and until firms can find ways to bring down the costs of providing services, innovative and disruptive websites like Divorce Online, RocketLawyer etc will steal a march as the new dawn approaches. Those who can provide low cost affordable services will flourish and the rest will merge or die.