Good morning everyone, and thank you Sharon for your typically warm
It gives me great pride to be standing before you today in my home town
of Brighton. Those in the know will
testify that last year’s conference venue, Manchester, happens to have been the
city of my birth. However, any
suggestion that the Chair influences the conference location is both scurrilous
and untrue. Besides, as Sue Gunn will
testify, if I’d had my way we’d have been enjoying the water flumes at Butlins
of Bognor this year…
Luckily for all of you, Brighton is rather more enjoyable, as reflected
in the record number of people attending conference this year – around 500 in total. I’d like to extend my
enormous thanks to Sharon and the whole East Sussex region for hosting us this
year. Sharon, you’re a credit to your region, and to Resolution.
The last 12 months
With a general election on the horizon, they say a week is a long time
in politics. Yet in family law, 12 months pass in the blink of an eye. It seems
like only yesterday that I became your newly-elected Chair. 12 months on, and
whilst the ‘newness’ of it may have diminished, the pride I have in our
organisation, our values, and our members, is as strong now as it was a year
And as we reflect on the past 12 months, I’m reminded that when we last
came together, we were a fortnight away from some of the most significant
changes to the family justice system that many of us had ever seen – with the
opening of the Single Family Court, and the introduction of Child Arrangement
Orders, the 26 week rule, statutory MIAMs, and other measures in the Children
and Families Act. A big part of our work in the last 12 months has been to
monitor the impact of the changes, listen to your concerns and liaise with
judges, HMCTS and ministers to improve the family justice system for all.
The family courts
The changes which were looming then are now a reality, and embedded in
our daily practice.
Yet the after-effects of so much change are still being measured, and
responses to our recent member survey on the impact of the reforms one year on
underline just how profound they have been. Over 400 members from across the
country responded, and while we’ll be publicising the detail of the results in
coming weeks, there are some clear common themes emerging.
- Overall, most of you said that the experience of your local court for
you and your clients has got worse since the reforms.
- There are concerns about the new forms being used – particularly the new
- Most of you have found that money and children cases are taking longer.
- And most of you have said changes to counter services have made it more
difficult to issue applications, or indeed to have any administrative
interaction with the court.
The feedback from our members on how the courts are operating should not
be misinterpreted as criticism of judges and court staff. Like many others in
the public sector, they are working within significant financial constraints
and for the most part are doing their best in challenging circumstances. But when that leads to inefficiency, delay
and potentially injustice for families, that is wrong
With any systemic change, it always takes time for things to bed in and
for people to get to grips with new ways of working.
But when you take the April 2014 reforms in tandem with the avalanche of
changes in the family justice system in recent years, I think it’s fair to say
we’re all feeling a bit overwhelmed.
And nowhere is this more acutely felt than in legal aid.
It would be short-sighted to fail to make the connection between the
legal aid cuts and the difficulties faced now by the family courts. No matter what the MoJ may say to the
contrary, our own experience, and that of the judges to whom we speak, is clear
– cases involving litigants in person do
take longer than those where there is at least an element of legal
In its recent report into the impact of LASPO
, the Justice Select
Committee reached the overall conclusion that the changes to legal aid 'has
harmed access to justice'. The report also said that the changes ended up
costing the courts more because of the increase in litigants in person; that
legal aid wasn’t being targeted properly; and that the government had no idea
of the knock-on costs to other areas of public spending.
These points have been made by Resolution on many occasions over the
past 2 years, including in the evidence that we gave to the Justice Select
Committee last September. They will not
come as any surprise to those of you living with these changes on a day-to-day
basis. And nowhere is this felt more acutely than in dealing with victims of
For me, the imposition of barriers to those who remain entitled to – and
are in most need of – legal aid, is a damning indictment of how we as a society
treat vulnerable people.
Now there is yet another challenge facing beleaguered legal aid
practitioners, who arguably do the most vital work of any of us. This October,
the Legal Aid Agency plan to make their new online Client Cost Management
System compulsory for all legal aid providers.
For those of you not familiar with it, CCMS was heralded as a new,
faster, digital way of submitting civil legal aid applications. It was first piloted more than 2 years ago
in the North East, and Resolution members there initially embraced the changes.
And across the organisation, the way we saw it, anything that reduces the
administrative burden had
to be a good thing.
Sadly, the reality is very different. CCMS has been beset with problems
since its introduction. We welcome
online working but this is not the way to do it.
Over the past 2 years, Resolution has been trying to communicate the
scale of these problems to the Legal Aid Agency, through feedback provided by
our members. But despite our ongoing dialogue with senior figures there;
regular written representations; and even a recent meeting with the legal aid
Minister – the problems remain. Led by
our former chair Liz Edwards, and co-chair of the Legal Aid Committee Elspeth
Thomson, members have worked tirelessly to seek improvements.
Until now we’ve taken the view that it’s better to try to work with the
LAA rather than against them. But, increasingly, we feel we’re banging our head
against a brick wall. They seem intent on rolling CCMS out in October, at any
cost, despite the very many difficulties we have long been flagging: the fact
that the system continues to be unstable; that users can’t keep a record of
what they’ve actually
submitted; and that it is so slow, it can take 3 times
as long as the paper process.
At the last count, the Legal Aid Agency had spent over £35m pounds
on this ill-fated project. When set against the scale of the legal aid cuts
introduced in April 2013, and the huge number of vulnerable people now deprived
of access to justice who could benefit from some of this budget being used to
fund some legal advice, this is nothing short of a national scandal.
My message to the Legal Aid Agency today is simple – just because
something works for you
mean that it works.
There may have been some improvements in CCMS as a result of our work,
and we welcome this. But if the system
is rolled out in its current form, there will be untold difficulties come
October. I say to those at the LAA – you need to listen to what practitioners
are saying, and act on it now, for your own sake as much as anyone else’s.
This is not a political point – and be in no doubt, we will be just as
vociferous on CCMS – and our concerns over the removal of legal aid – after the
General Election, regardless of who is in power.