In basic terms, legal aid helps people gain legal advice or representation when they cannot afford it independently. The legal aid system here in the UK is said to be one of the most expensive in the world, spending £2 billion per year. With the recession and cuts being made across most sectors, it is not surprising that there have been reforms and further changes proposed to legal aid. These changes are being put in place as a bid to try and save £350 million per year; however they have been the source of much controversy and even recently sparked protests. But what does all this mean for families who are trying to use legal aid? Gordon Dean solicitors in Norwich explain in more detail…
Changes to Family Legal Aid
In April of this year some alterations were made to legal aid that reduced the scope of the funding, legal aid pertaining to family law was significantly changed. Private family law issues such as custody battles and divorce are no longer eligible for legal aid. The exception being that such private family cases can gain access to legal aid if there is history of child or domestic abuse. Under such circumstances there must be evidence of such abuse to qualify for legal aid. In this situation, legal aid is only provided for the victim of domestic abuse and not the perpetrator. Of course, if legal action is needed to protect an individual or child from abuse, it is covered by legal aid.
The ministers intentions behind of the withdrawal of legal aid for most family private law was to encourage these kinds of disputes to be settled outside the courtroom, supposedly saving the courts time and money. Legal aid mediation for divorce proceedings and custody battles is still available. However it is means tested; there is a simple online government calculator that helps individuals see if their circumstances qualify them for family legal aid.
Options Outside of Legal Aid
Although, the changes may not be having the intended impact – in recent months there has been an increase in the number of parents applying to go to court for this matter and a decrease in the use of mediators in England and Wales. If individuals are not eligible for legal aid and do not feel mediation is the right option for them, a lot of solicitors offer payment packages which help to try and limit the cost and/or spread it out over time. Some individuals may also choose to represent themselves, although having an initial consultation with a lawyer is probably advisable – various organisations can help with this such as the citizen’s advice bureau.
More Proposed Changes
Further restrictions to general legal aid access are currently being debated; it has been proposed that there should be income restrictions. If the changes go ahead it will mean any individuals with excessive of £3,000 per month after essential outgoings, tax and mortgage will not be able to gain legal aid – neither will those who have lived in the UK for less than a year.