QualitySolicitors warns that low-income parents may be left unable to afford necessary legal representation to secure contact rights with their children following divorce.
The Government’s reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, come into immediate effect on 1st April 2013. The reforms will reduce the number of people who currently qualify for legal aid by 75%. This means 200,000 fewer cases. Leading group of law firms, QualitySolicitors argue that the changes will have considerable impact on the family, as unhappy couples struggle to afford a divorce, or afford to fight for custody of their children, resulting in many parents losing contact with their children completely.
QualitySolicitors considers the implications of the reforms:
What are lawyers’ perceptions of these changes?
Tim Barker, Partner at QualitySolicitors Lawson & Thompson, says, “The Government’s commitment to upholding ‘the family’, placing particular importance on the presence of a ‘father figure’ sounds rather hollow in light of these legal aid reforms. Following the breakdown of a relationship, many fathers/absent parents already struggle to secure access to their children even with legal aid support. These reforms will only make the situation worse, leaving those parties facing financial difficulty, often at the bottom rung of society, unable to afford the legal advice they need to secure regular contact with their children. More worryingly, in an acrimonious break up, there is now nothing to stop one parent taking advantage of the system and blocking access to their children, should their partner be unable to afford to fight for access in the courts.”
Graeme Downs, Partner at QualitySolicitors Punch Robson, says, “These reforms could force many people to attempt to resolve their own divorce, access to children and financial disputes without specialist advice. As such, many may lose out significantly or be forced to fall back on a 50/50 split which may not be the fairest outcome. Those without any effective means to pay will be the most affected, particularly those on means tested benefits or living on national minimum wage. It begs the questions as to whether people will be forced to stay married as they simply cannot afford to divorce or face the prospect of losing access to their children.”
Peter Belshaw, Director and solicitor at QualitySolicitors Belshaws, says, “The reforms to legal aid will inevitably lead to many parents being unable to afford to fight for a residence order, and potentially result in some losing contact with their children. Inevitably, the hardest hit will be those with low incomes. Beyond this, these reforms place a greater onus on the courts to remain vigilant in ensuring that disparity of earnings does not lead to court orders which are palpably skewed in favour of the richer party.”
Michael Trueman, Partner at QualitySolicitors Truemans, says, “These reforms will deny many people access to justice as they are unlikely to feel confident enough to go to court and make their case independently. Those that do take on this responsibility will take far longer to make their case, leaving the courts clogged up and inevitably hampering the legal service.”
Louise Jones, Partner at QualitySolicitors Talbots, says, “These reforms will force many individuals to represent themselves in the courtroom, driving a real inequality between those who can afford legal representation and those who cannot. The changes will also have a hugely negative impact on children, an aspect of the reforms not given enough attention or insight. A lack of access to legal aid could see a child’s right to contact with each of their parents placed at the mercy of economic parity between both parties. Unless each parent is able to call on professional legal representation, the child risks being left without proper access to both of their parents. Children’s’ rights are incredibly precious, and these reforms potentially leave no recourse to fulfil them in contact disputes.”
What is the QualitySolicitors solution?
QualitySolicitors recognises the implications these reforms will have on people looking to access legal services and are committed to offering an alternative to those who stand to lose out from these reforms.
As Craig Holt, founder of QualitySolicitors explains, “These reforms represent the biggest change to legal aid in a generation. As a leading group of law firms, we recognise that many people will feel they are unable to afford the specialist advice necessary to guide them through potentially complex legal disputes. As a result, we are working on innovative solutions designed to ensure that everyone is able to access the quality legal support they need, when they need it. Amongst other measures, all our clients are able to talk through their specific cases with our lawyers before deciding whether or not to proceed with legal action. In addition, our commitment to ensuring that all clients are clear about costs takes away the financial uncertainty and risk of ever-increasing bills. We hope these measures go some way to protecting, amongst other rights, a child's fair and proper contact with his or her parents irrespective of how wealthy they are.”
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Notes to Editors:
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Background information on the changes to legal aid:
What are the legal aid reforms?
From 1st April 2013, £350m will be cut from the £2.2bn legal aid bill as part of a broader programme of legal aid reform. This reduction in funds reverses the existing legal precedent that sees financial assistance granted for all civil cases, except those excluded by the Access to Justice Act 1999. These reforms will see fewer types of civil cases eligible for legal aid funding. The areas now excluded for legal aid funding include key elements of private family law, personal injury, and immigration. People will now have to pay privately for legal advice on these matters.
- Launched in 2010, QualitySolicitors is a group of law firms across the country working as part of the QualitySolicitors brand. Only one firm per local area is selected to become a QualitySolicitors partner. Customer feedback forms an integral part of the selection process.
- QualitySolicitors lawyers are experts in their fields dealing with both consumer and SME legal matters. QualitySolicitors offers a personal, local service but with the assurance of a recognised national brand.
- The website address is www.qualitysolicitors.com.
- In 2011 QualitySolicitors secured equity investment from Palamon Capital Partners, a private equity house with a £700m fund.