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Access to Justice in the Family Court – FLBA Briefing Paper

Date:22 APR 2015
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The FLBA has prepared a briefing paper on issues surrounding access to justice in the Family Court, to explain to candidates in the forthcoming election how changes to civil legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) are causing injustice to many children and their families.

The briefing paper reads:

The removal of legal aid for most private law family disputes and the lowering of the financial eligibility criteria have caused injustice to many families in the last two years. As a result of LASPO, 160,000 fewer families cases were funded in 2013-14 compared with the previous year. That meant over 13,000 families per month, all of them in trying circumstances, and many of them including vulnerable people, have not been getting legal help. One of the consequences is that the number of cases in which neither party is represented has increased by 30% across all family court cases.

Litigants in person who have no choice but to represent themselves inevitably struggle to present their cases. The treatment of vulnerable people in the Family Court is so poor that it has been described as ‘shameful’ by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby.

The efficient delivery of family justice intended by the creation of the single Family Court is under threat. Judges and HMCTS staff are under intolerable pressure in seeking to arrive at just decisions based on inadequate evidence and preparation. Delays and abortive hearings are growing, thereby creating extra costs for HMCTS. Judges, Magistrates and barristers have all provided evidence that delays in the Family Court have increased as a result of LASPO. The assertion of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) that there is no evidence of delays is based on experimental and unreliable statistics.

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Due to these delays children across the country are suffering damage to relationships with non-resident parents and some are losing contact altogether as parents give up on pursuing contact through court proceedings. Being denied access to legal help means many women are effectively trapped in abusive relationships thereby exposing themselves and their children to further harm.

LASPO has created wider costs across the public sector, the scale of which the outgoing government did not assess. Latent social costs complete the picture of false economy.

We are not asking for all of the LASPO changes to be repealed but we urge the next government to take steps to mitigate the effects of LASPO, which has denied access to justice to the most vulnerable people, contrary to one of the MoJ’s objectives, which was to target legal aid at those who need it most.

The full briefing paper is available on the FLBA website and can be downloaded here.