On 1 April 2013, the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into effect to cut the legal aid bill. Legal aid has been withdrawn for clients who are involved in family disputes such as child residency disputes. Prior to the changes in April, the Legal Services Commission enabled Family Law clients access to legal aid for all services.
How the Changes Affect Family Law
Whereas before clients were able to seek legal aid for matrimonial matters such as divorce, child contact matters and child residency (formerly known as child custody) disputes, legal aid has now been withdrawn. Many Family Law Solicitors have been known to offer an initial free consultation to clients in order to set matters out and offer initial advice on how cases would progress. Without further recourse to a case under a frequently seen family dispute, Family Law Solicitors are essentially giving away free advice. It opens up the argument for Solicitors to begin charging for the initial consultation. On the flip side of the coin, the impact on clients occurs where there is a disparity of wealth between couples and under the pre-April 2013 changes, legal aid assisted with such matters. Disputing couples whether married or not are now referred to mediation services, which are a lesser financial cost to clients.
There are exceptions to the changes and legal aid is available only in exceptional circumstances:
- Domestic Violence
- Care Proceedings for Children (Both Public and Private Law)
- Forced Marriage Protection Orders
In domestic violence cases, clients must have proof of such circumstances before a Lawyer can refer the case to the Legal Services Commission. This alone has proved an ambiguous area in that many Lawyers have to turn away clients who don’t have the proof. With domestic violence cases, not all are reported, due to fear and protection of the children, and rightly or wrongly this area still remains debatable for Family Lawyers. This leads to vulnerable clients no longer having access to services such as legal advice.
Where there is cause for child protection matters, again proof has to be presented before a referral for legal aid can be activated.
Clients in Receipt of Legal Aid Pre-April 2013
Clients in ongoing cases are not affected by the LASPO amendments to Family Law. Naturally, as before, if circumstances change, then these must be reported to the LSC. The same rules still apply in this respect.
Family Lawyers and the Handling of New Clients
The amendments brought about by the LASPO Act have affected Family Law and how new clients are handled. While it must be said that many Solicitors have considered closing their Family Law section, there are still new clients to consider. Clients who are already in mediation which is not working through the disputes due to exceptional circumstances may still qualify for legal aid. So far as providing a service, Family Lawyers are keen to protect their clients’ in line with their responsibilities in providing a service. It is also prudent to add that the initial free consultation period has been shortened time-wise.
Family Law has been at the frontline in the LASPO Act, and while it is hard to argue the burden on the public purse from legal aid, there are many aspects insofar as assistance now available to vulnerable clients who are at risk. Particularly in domestic violence cases as all are not reported and a vulnerable person may not have access to funds to be able to provide the proof.
Regarding the changes, practices that specialise in Family Law have many areas to consider in respect of the LASPO Act. While the changes affect law firms across the board, seemingly Family Law has to address more areas throughout their practice, particularly in the handling of new clients.