The loss of Legal Aid for most family law cases, in particular divorce, is something we have talked about many times in this blog. Why, when we didn’t deal with Legal Aid cases ourselves? Because it is a big change in the industry and affects many people, particularly the most vulnerable.
In most cases, couples seeking divorce will not now be able to get state help to fund their legal fees. More people are going into mediation without legal support afterwards and many more are representing themselves in court, which can be frustrating for them, for us and for the court.
However, there was an announcement last month which suggested the Government recognised a lot of vulnerable families in crisis were being left in no man’s land by this – and they are trying to help. Around £6.5 million is being allocated to a support fund for estranged parents to help them work together for the good of the children involved in the split and to reach the necessary agreements on things like where the children will live and how they will maintain contact with both parents.
Details so far suggest there will be a “virtual” internet-based mediation service, hosted by Relate, more localised face-to-face mediation services to help parents reach amicable agreements, parenting classes and counseling.
Looking at it in its most basic form, it is effectively state funded help to aid couples in reaching agreement, thus keeping down court and legal costs.
So will it help? Well it is all good stuff and will be welcome for some, but just how many is a big question. Seems like it will benefit a few but still leave most who may previously have been assisted by Legal Aid wondering which way to turn for the best if they think they cannot afford divorce costs.
Utilising technology in virtual sessions is great and involving Relate is a hugely positive thing as they have vast experience and are a known and trusted brand. However, their advisors are not family lawyers and so may be out of their depth when clients start probing legal aspects of the separation. If this is not made clear, clients may have inflated expectations of what can be delivered without an experienced family solicitor being involved.
Focusing on the positives, if these schemes and agencies can deal more with the emotional and practical issues around family breakdown, the help the person needs on the legal issues can be much clearer. This will leave them in a better position to assess potential costs and family law specialists will be able to offer specific, cost effective services for them.
A number of the pilot projects have been set up in areas of the country where we have many clients, like the West Midlands, Warwickshire and Wales so I will watch with interest how these get on. For those couples though who are on low income, living in areas where there is no pilot, it is still a concern that many feel they will not be able to afford legal representation, without even looking into it, and so either stay in an unhappy relationship or muddle through themselves and leave themselves open to all manner of potential pitfalls in the future.