Legal aid in England and Wales is changing and it will have a particular impact on family law. Legal aid aims to help those who require financial assistance to pay their legal fees but the government is cutting its annual spend in this areas by £350 million from April 2013. Legal aid will no longer be available to the vast majority of divorcing couples.
In recent years around 250,000 divorce cases a year have been funded by legal aid. The aim is to reduce this to 40,000, thus making significant savings. In most cases only those effected by domestic violence, abduction and forced marriage will be eligible to legal aid with the likelihood of receiving assistance coming down to finances. The reason for this is that in these cases going through the courts is usually the only way of proceeding whereas in other circumstances there are other options.
How Will This Impact Family Law?
It is difficult to predict the exact impact of these changes but there is little doubt there will be some changing trends within the family law sector.
With the lack of available legal aid the cost of taking a divorce case through the courts will significantly increase for many couples. It is hoped that this will result in mediation becoming more common place. Where this route is taken it leads to huge savings in solicitor’s fees and court fees. Expensive legal fees may put couples in a position where they feel there is no option but to go down the mediation route but it may, in the long run, also lead to a simpler, less stressful separation.
Another way that the legal aid changes could make an impact is by it leading to more people representing themselves in court. This is something many in the legal profession are concerned about as self-representation can end in disaster. Without the knowledge of the workings of a court it is very difficult to make a good legal case. This could, therefore, lead to not getting the result they are deserving of. This could be particularly problematic if one party can afford legal assistance and the other cannot. It has been claimed by some that wives who can’t afford to pay for legal assistance, but whose husbands can, will be impact the most (of course this can also happen in reverse). If one party is being legally represented and the other isn’t then it can make a fair outcome even more difficult to come by as it makes it more difficult for a court to assess the situation accurately.
One fear is that there could be an increase in poor quality legal assistance. Those unable to afford a good solicitor may have no choice but to pay for cheaper, and therefore lesser quality, legal assistance. A final possibility is that there could be a reduction in the number of couples getting divorced. It is difficult to say whether or not this will be the case, but if it is it could lead to some couples remaining in unhappy marriages as they see divorce as unaffordable.
It could be argued that an increase in the number of couples going through mediation would be a positive. But, in reality will this happen? Some in the legal profession have predicted that it will not, and people will instead proceed without legal assistance, therefore slowing down the process and making it more complex.
Contrary to popular belief, in many circumstances lawyers actually reduce the number of family law cases going to court at present. They encourage negotiation, something that is easier with legal representation as a separating couple do not have to go directly to one another. Lawyers also often play a part in managing expectations. As they understand the ins and outs of the industry they can be more realistic than their clients, as people don’t always see the boundaries of what is possible themselves.
About the author
This post was written by Andrew Marshall, a writer and internet marketer. Andrew works with a number of UK law firms across a wide range of legal sectors.