Thursday, March 12, 2015

Legal Aid cuts impact: Ministers’ fingers in their ears, not listening


Today’s Parliamentary report into government Legal Aid changes in 2013 confirms Ministers turned a blind eye to the devastating impact the cuts would have on people in need of access to justice, says a leading family charity.

Ministers might as well have had their fingers in their ears, shouting ‘I’m not listening’, says National Family Mediation (NFM).

Responding to today’s report of The Commons Justice Select Committee following its inquiry into the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act, Chief Executive of NFM, Jane Robey, who was called by the committee to give evidence, said:

“Ministers try to justify the changes on the grounds of cost-cutting, but it is the failure to provide the public with information on alternative ways of pursuing justice that is really inexcusable.

“The savings made from the Legal Aid budget must be offset against the massive extra expense of extended court proceedings. People wrongly believe their only option in the absence of Legal Aid is to head to court and represent themselves, creating huge logjams in the system.

“The tragedy is that we, and others working on the front-line, told the Government this is exactly what would happen. They didn’t heed the warnings. Ministers might as well have had their fingers in their ears, shouting ‘I’m not listening’.

“In our daily work we have seen the evidence first-hand. The changes to legal aid have left people confused, lacking understanding and awareness of how they should proceed when divorcing or separating.

“Back in April 2013 when the changes were made, each month NFM’s 0300 4000 636 family dispute helpline was taking around 800 calls. We now field over 3,200 calls every month, most of which come from people who are totally unprepared and do not know where to turn for advice. In effect the NFM helpline has become the first port of call for people seeking to address any divorce or separation enquiry.

“We have briefed Ministers on this, seeking funding to help us fill the gap their mess created. They’re still not listening.

“The changes had a devastating impact on not-for-profit mediation providers, with a number of them closing due to declining numbers of referrals. And whilst the introduction of compulsory mediation information and assessment meetings was a step in the right direction, it came 386 days after the legal aid cuts were implemented. The gap led to the collapse of a number of mediation services which found that the flow of referrals had simply dried up. It was too late to save them.”

She added that continuing cuts to local government funding mean that even more not-for-profit services will close as local authorities are forced to cut more of their grant funding to organisations working on the ground.

Amongst the changes made in the Act was the removal of a Government payment of £25 per client for the ‘willingness test’, in which mediators seek engagement in mediation from the second party in a separation. “Work to engage the second party continues, but despite the government’s proclaimed wish to promote mediation, they are no longer paying for this to happen, and the cumulative impact of this is huge on not-for-profit services,” added Jane Robey.

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