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Legal Aid: Family Courts

Volume 723: debated on Monday 13 December 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to assess the impact on family courts of the increased number of litigants in person who will have to represent their own cases if they no longer qualify for legal aid.

My Lords, I beg leave to put the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as chair of the regulator, the Bar Standards Board.

We are currently reviewing the existing data and research into the impact of litigants in person on the courts. This will contribute to the analysis in the final impact assessments due to be published alongside the legal aid consultation response in spring 2011.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that existing research shows that cases involving litigants in person take longer and are less likely to settle? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, has said that mediation does not meet the case in every situation. It is also likely that more men will be able to afford lawyers and that more women will have to fend for themselves in these family law cases where the interests of children should be paramount. It is not right to leave parties legally unaided in these emotional and complex issues. Does the Minister really believe that these cuts will in the long term save costs and do no harm?

My Lords, that is certainly the intention. What we are trying to do is to get a change in culture so that people in family cases do not automatically go to law. Some of the points that the noble Baroness raised are worth examining. For example, in a case where there is not a balance of resources, the courts will be able to ask the wealthier of the two parties to deposit resources, which will mean a greater equality in advice. The basic thing about our reforms is that we do not believe that family justice is best carried out by state-funded litigation.

Is my noble friend aware of the concern of the family Bar that the cuts in legal aid will disproportionately affect ethnic minority lawyers with the result that, in 10 or 20 years’ time, there may be a lack of diversity in judges appointed to the Family Division?

My Lords, it is difficult to assess the full impact at the moment, but it is certainly true that, in many of the firms that have been dealing with family law, ethnic minorities are better represented. However, I think that it is too early to say that the impact to which my noble friend has referred will come about.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a large majority of our fellow citizens would be willing to pay whatever taxes are required to ensure that everyone in this country, through legal aid, is equal under the law and has equal entitlement to access to justice before the courts? Should not that be a bedrock principle of a liberal society?

My Lords, one of the Government’s proposals, which I think has some merit, is to attempt to move away from a culture in which the taxpayer pays for litigation, particularly in family disputes. Many studies have shown that the litigation route to settling family disputes exacerbates the dispute and causes lasting harm to all sides of the family, particularly the children.

My Lords, as a judge who tried a large number of family cases in which both sides were litigants in person, I can confirm that such cases will take much longer. Does the Minister realise that there is a hard core of people who fight over their children and who will not agree through mediation? I would be delighted to take part in consultations with the Government on what will happen.

My Lords, I fully appreciate the noble and learned Baroness’s long and great experience in these fields. Certainly, some cases may be lengthened by the fact that neither side is legally advised, but the intention, as I said at the beginning, is to try to move a large number of such cases away from the court system into mediation and other forms of settlement. I fully accept her point that family disputes can become so bitter and intractable that resolution is very difficult, but that still does not argue the case for the taxpayer funding both sides in that kind of dispute.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a deputy High Court judge of the Family Division and chair of the All-Party Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Does the Minister accept that, in cases of domestic violence, mediation is not appropriate and that the unequal nature of such relationships demands that there should be proper financial support for the litigants in those cases? Bearing that in mind, will he give an assurance that domestic violence cases will still receive appropriate public support?

Domestic violence cases will get appropriate public support. In the arrangements for legal aid, a separate fund can be granted for special cases. Where legal aid falls outside the newly defined scope, I suggest that many of the areas suggested by the noble and learned Baroness will be good cases for special treatment.