In October 2013, the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation into the Government's proposals for changes to the family legal aid remuneration schemes. The changes were intended to be incorporated into secondary legislation to come into effect when the new Single Family Court (FC) is introduced later this year.
The new FC will become the national court for most family proceedings in England and Wales and County Courts and Magistrates Courts will cease to hear family proceedings. The High Court will still be able to hear family proceedings, but will primarily deal with those matters that are reserved for the High Court, including those that concern its inherent jurisdiction. Changes to the family legal aid remuneration framework are therefore necessary to ensure that the legal aid scheme reflects the new court system.
It was proposed that family legal aid fee levels should be linked to the level of the judge allocated to the case rather than the tier of the court, as there will only be two tiers of court but four levels of judges (lay bench, district judge, circuit judge and High Court judge). This change would also apply to proceedings under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 and the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996, where they are heard in the family court.
The consultation has now concluded and the MoJ has published a response to the consultation which highlights how the government intends to proceed. There were 12 responses, mainly from representative bodies or providers of family legal aid services. It was intended, as far as possible, to be cost-neutral and therefore have no impact on legal aid recipients or those providing family legal aid services. In its response, the MoJ has confirmed that it is not anticipated that the proposed change will affect the level of remuneration to legal professionals providing family legal aid services.
The Government also sought views on potential changes to Practice Direction 27A in relation to the current system of bolt on fees for court bundles, payable under the Family Advocacy Scheme and limiting the size of court bundles to a maximum of 350 pages. The Government has not reached a conclusion as to the changes it wishes to introduce at this stage, but aired concern in the response that linking the bolt-on fee to the amount of material involved in preparing the case would create a high risk that legal aid providers and advocates would routinely claim higher bolt-on fees than they do currently. It therefore stated that this was not a viable way forward but it would introduce alternative proposals for consultation for changes to the system of bolt on fees in respect of court bundles shortly.