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The Family Law Bar Association yesterday submitted a response to the Ministry of Justice consultation entitled Reforming the Legal Aid Family Barrister Fee Scheme concerning legal fees in family law cases.
The Family Law Bar Association's response to the Ministry of Justice consultation is made in the context of increasing pressure on the family justice system which is putting the most vulnerable in society at risk. At a time when senior family judges are publicly raising concern that the system is creaking at the seams, the Association argues that the Government seems intent on putting it under further pressure by proposing cuts of £13m to public funding for legal representation in family cases.
As public funding in family law matters is only available for the most vulnerable, the Family Law Bar Association says the Ministry of Justice's proposals in the consultation paper will have the effect of reducing the number of barristers prepared to undertake family law work and risks the quality of representation available to these families. The proposals have the potential to create a two-tier system of justice in the family courts, the Association claims.
The Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, Lucy Theis QC said today: "There is often no second chance when children are at risk of harm. The removal of a child from his or her natural parents by the State has rightly been described as one of the most draconian decisions that can be made. Parents and especially children in such cases require effective, experienced representation. The expertise of the barristers who practice in this area is relied upon by both litigants and judges. The proposed cuts will not only reduce the number of practitioners who are willing to undertake this important public service but also discourage those wanting to specialise in this area.
"The Family Law Bar Association is already seeing members withdrawing from publicly funded work; junior members of the profession are finding that they can't afford to continue doing such work and senior members are not being replaced. If this trend continues - and it will be exacerbated by the Government's proposals - the consequence will be the loss of effective experienced advocates to those who need them most. This will in turn impact on the family judiciary who are often appointed from those who have experience in conducting these cases.
"The family courts are already under pressure. These proposals will result in the reduced availability of publicly funded advocates. This will risk an increased number of litigants in person appearing before family courts with the consequence that there will be increased costs for the courts, the other parties (invariably in receipt of public funding) and delay in decisions being made in relation to vulnerable children. This will further undermine public confidence in the family law system.
"The Ministry of Justice's proposals are short-sighted, ill-thought out and will result in the very consequences which it is trying to avoid - increased costs. The Family Law Bar Association calls on Lord Hunt to look afresh at how to fund family law cases. We have submitted proposals to revise the graduated fee system and wish to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Government to ensure that this is done in a way which minimises risk to the most vulnerable in society and ensures they have an effective voice in the family justice system."