The government are to withdraw legal aid from most family cases as from 1 April 2013. This is not something that many people are aware of and I think it is vital that people realise the devastating effect that this will have. Most clients, even those on benefits or low incomes, will not be able to obtain legal aid for divorces, contact with their children or “custody” disputes. Clients will have to either pay lawyers – which many are unable to do – or represent themselves in court. In reality most will not have the confidence to represent themselves and will simply be left in intolerable positions. I believe that this will particularly effect women and children. I believe that this will put women and children at risk of abuse as they are unable to obtain the legal expertise to protect themselves. Although the government will still allow legal aid in cases of Domestic Violence the definition is very strict and many Domestic Violence victims simply will not fulfil the criteria which will inevitably lead to them suffering further incidents of domestic violence until they are deemed to be worthy of legal aid. The purpose of many court orders are preventative however this will not be the case in many instances when the new regime comes into effect.
Many women will also find that after separating although they are entitled to half or even more of the family assets they cannot afford to instruct a lawyer to make the claim so will simply end up walking away from what is rightfully theirs – this will often lead to children going without.
In response to this Watson Ramsbottom solicitors have introduced a fixed fee scheme which allows clients to pay for advice or representation at different times throughout court proceedings which works out much cheaper than if we were doing everything for them. Clients will always know how much a particular stage will cost and beable to budget for it.
However if you need advice and think you may be eligible for legal aid you should ensure that you get to see a solicitor within the next few weeks so that they can apply for legal aid on your behalf well before April as existing legal aid certificates will be allowed to continue. It is important that clients do not leave it to the last minute as it can take several weeks to apply obtain legal aid. We are already seeing a large increase in clients coming forward to try and obtain legal aid before it disappears and this is likely to escalate over the next few weeks.