Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)
33: Schedule 1, page 116, line 1, at end insert—
“Children affected by civil and family law proceedingsCivil legal services provided to a person having dependent children related to—
(a) private family law;(b) any benefit, allowance, payment, credit or pension under—(i) the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992,(ii) the Jobseekers Act 1995,(iii) the State Pension Credit Act 2002,(iv) the Tax Credits Act 2002,(v) the Welfare Reform Act 2007,(vi) the Welfare Reform Act 2011, or(vii) any other enactment relating to social security;(c) all areas of employment law not otherwise covered in this Schedule;(d) all areas of housing law not otherwise covered in this Schedule;(e) all areas of debt-related disputes not otherwise covered in this Schedule;(f) all areas of immigration and asylum law not otherwise covered in this Schedule;(g) all areas of clinical negligence law not otherwise covered in this Schedule;(h) consumer law;(i) all areas of consumer law not otherwise covered in this Schedule;(j) appeals to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority;(k) reviews or appeals under sections 11 or 13 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007; or(l) appeals to the Supreme Court.”
My Lords, I have put my name to the amendment, which seeks to restore families with dependent children to the list of those eligible for legal aid and advice in respect of a range of legal issues that can be fundamental to the ability of a family to function. The proposed changes in the Bill, and in other Bills before your Lordships’ House such as the Welfare Reform Bill, which was referred to before the break, will have a disproportionate effect on those families in our society who are the least advantaged, most marginalised and most deprived. The number of those who would benefit from the amendment is necessarily limited by the terms and conditions under which legal aid and advice is available, but they may well be the people who are least able to contemplate the complexities and mysteries of conditional fee agreements, of lawyers, and of the costs of the ATE insurance premium in cases that they may have to fight.
We in this country have to make many decisions about how we spend our money. In November last year, the Government affirmed their commitment to spend £200 million on an airstrip in the south Atlantic, for St Helena island, which has 4,000 inhabitants. As we contemplate our reasons for doing that and observe similar expenditure, we should ask ourselves: what would be the consequences of removing access to legal aid from the poorest and most marginalised families in our country? The Minister spoke earlier today of the hard choices faced by government. They are infinitely harder for those upon whom these choices and legislative changes will fall.
Some 650,000 of the poorest people will be deprived of the access that they currently have through solicitors, CAB law centres and other advice centres that are estimated to provide services at a cost of between £150 and £200 per case. Justice for All, a coalition of some 4,000 organisations, has estimated that approximately 140,000 children will be affected by the proposed measures as legal aid is withdrawn from the adults who care for them, and that at least 6,000 children will be deprived of legal aid altogether. It is also estimated that 57 per cent of those who will no longer be able to access specialist advice on welfare benefits are disabled—about 78,000 people. Where those disabled people are part of families with dependent children, or where dependent children are living in a family, they will encounter even more marginalisation as a result of the consequential difficulties of access to specialist advice.
The Coalition: our Programme for Government stated:
“The Government believes that strong and stable families of all kinds are the bedrock of a strong and stable society”.
We know from the recent Save the Children report that 45 per cent of parents living in severe poverty are considering cutting back on food to pay energy bills. Many families with very low incomes, lacking job stability because of the area in which they live, facing deprivation on a scale of which most of us have little experience and living in overcrowded accommodation, nevertheless provide a stable and strong base from which to launch their children into the world as active, contributing members of society. When they face legal challenges, they should be supported, because it is the right thing to do and also because if we do not, they may find themselves unable to maintain their family lives and will inevitably become a cost to the state.
I want to say a word about private family law. Great concern has been expressed about the fact that private family law cases have been excluded from legal aid provision. Not all cases of family breakdown are susceptible to mediation or even to the type of collaborative law project discussed earlier. There will inevitably be cases where legal aid and advice is required by families. Concerns have been raised about cases in which a child is unlawfully removed from one part of the United Kingdom to another, and about cases in which a spouse has suffered prolonged violence during a relationship or has other problems, such as extreme poverty, illiteracy or even as simple a thing as no one to mind the children. That person may not have the capacity personally to challenge the other in the courts to try to recover the child. If it has to be done before the courts, under the proposed arrangements, it could result in two spouses both personally conducting their cases in court—surely a recipe for all sorts of failure in the delivery of access to justice.
Legal aid is not being withdrawn for international child abduction cases. The effect of moving a child from Barnstaple to Belfast may be as difficult as moving a child from Barnstaple to Brittany. In such cases, the safety of the child may be at risk. There is the risk of psychological and emotional damage because of their inability to contact the second parent, or the risk that the parent who looks after the child ensures that the child has a distorted and damaged view of the action of the other parent.
To make a blanket provision excluding all private family law cases is neither proportionate nor necessary. The ultimate result will inevitably be a significantly enhanced burden on the individuals concerned and further involvement of the various statutory agencies, which carries its own cost.
We discussed benefits just before the dinner break. I therefore do not intend to say any more, other than that benefits are not something extra to a family's income, they are the family's income. They are that which enables the family to function, and there are good financial reasons to continue to provide the current low-cost legal assistance which has been available to date.
In cases of employment, as with civil litigation, access to legal aid permits a screening of cases, which facilitates the handling of such cases in a reasonably effective manner. The removal of access to pre-tribunal advice will have consequences similar to those which are being predicted consequential to the removal of legal aid for civil litigation. People will bring actions before tribunals without advice and, because of their lack of knowledge of tribunal procedures and employment law, there will undoubtedly be delays, additional adjournments and a necessity for the tribunal chair to ensure that litigants have equality of access in the absence of appropriate representation, particularly where the respondent is legally represented, as is the case in most employment tribunal applications. The cost of providing this service will inevitably rise.
There is a significant risk that the removal of legal advice in such cases could result in an awareness that employees have much reduced opportunities to assert their legal rights, with a consequent lowering of general standards of protection in employment. Those who face serious exploitation or discrimination at work may ultimately end up unemployed and on benefits. That could be the beginning of a downward spiral for many families—a situation in which today they could be successfully protected through the tribunal process.
Although housing advice is being retained for those at imminent risk of homelessness, there will nevertheless be situations in which people have serious housing benefit problems or other housing-related issues. One example given by Justice for All involves a woman who had previously attempted suicide and her 11 year-old daughter. They were living together and both were receiving psychiatric help following the suicide attempt. They were subjected to a campaign of harassment by newly arrived neighbours. There was verbal abuse, poison-pen letters, and endless complaints about the puppy which they had happily owned but which had to go because of complaints about noise. Shelter, using legal aid, was able to get them rehoused. People in this situation have been known to feel, as this lady did previously, that their only escape lies in suicide. What would this woman have done had she not been able to go to Shelter for help?
Many people in this country are living on the minimum wage, which amounts to less than £200 a week, or on benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, where the weekly benefit is £53.50 for a person under 25 or £67.50 for a person over 25. I ask noble Lords whether they could live on even £67.50 a week, after housing benefit of course. People in this situation live from day to day and from week to week. Planning ahead is not really possible. Meeting the costs of sudden illness or a reduction in working hours, which is happening to many people across the country, is a burden too far. Pay-day loans and other debt solutions are an unwarranted and disliked solution in such circumstances. They simply tie the borrower into the debt spiral, often with massive rates of interest, and the borrowers know this but they have nowhere else to go.
Debt causes stress and illness, and it leads to conflict and tension in families. People who find themselves in intractable difficulties despite their wish to work need help, such as that offered by money advice agencies, to access benefits to which they are entitled, to make a manageable agreement to repay their debts and ultimately to avoid losing their homes. If such advice and help is not available in the early stages, the consequences are almost inevitable. The cost to the public purse of the splitting up of the family is equally predictable in terms of sickness, housing costs, welfare benefits and access to medical services.
I want to say a brief word about immigration, which I have also included in the amendment. Trafficked persons and children would have no access to legal aid under the Government’s proposals. Refugees would not have access to advice about cases involving bringing members of their family to safety, and there would be no legal aid for many immigration judicial review cases, thereby reducing the accountability of the UK Border Agency.
Clinical negligence we have discussed at length, and I shall say no more other than that the King’s College, London, report is fairly persuasive that the ultimate cost could be £18 million, consequential upon the increased costs of ATE insurance.
There are compelling reasons to provide legal aid and advice for those families who would qualify in these circumstances. Acknowledging these issues, the Government have announced £20 million of funding to support people affected by the cuts. However, this is limited to the current financial year. There will be no capacity for sustainability in this measure. CAB research, which has not been challenged, has shown that for every £1 of legal aid advice and expenditure, the state potentially saves £8.80.
It is very clear that the attempts to remove access to justice from the most marginalised and deprived of our families will cause immense damage. Families with dependent children face not only the challenge of trying to make money stretch and to remain healthy, but also the challenge of producing the citizens of the future. If those children grow up knowing that their parents have no access to justice, how can they believe that this society cares for its weak and its vulnerable? How many families will splinter under the combined weight of lost jobs, lost expectations, reduced benefits, rising interest rates, and our failure to provide them the access to justice which will enable them to be, in the Government’s words,
“strong and stable families … the bedrock of a strong and stable society”?
I beg to move.
My Lords, I have put my name to Amendment 33, which seeks to retain legal aid in cases where a child will be affected by the outcome of a case brought by a parent or guardian. Many children are affected by civil law problems and family cases involving their parents or guardians, even though they themselves are not the applicant or claimant. The Government have said that,
“where children are involved, legal aid will still be provided”.—[Official Report, 7/7/11; col. 343.]
However, this is not in fact the case under the proposals in the Bill. I know that the Government recognise the importance of legal aid funding in a range of cases where children’s interests are paramount, which is good news. There are, however, still areas that cause grave concerns to many charities and organisations across all parts of society, and which unfairly affect children. They are: housing; welfare; immigration; domestic violence; clinical negligence; criminal injury compensation; and education. This will probably be due to their parents’ lack of financial resources and ability to navigate the legal system. Their parents may also be hindered by disability, language barriers, poverty, and mental health issues. These are no good reasons for children to be penalised.
Almost 150,000 children under 18 will lose the civil law and family law protection provided by legal aid. They are currently helped by legal advice or representation in court to deal with problems that are no fault of their own. Children are the named party in 6,000 cases per year that will no longer qualify for legal aid, and are financially affected by more than 140,000 cases per year involving their parents. The amendment would ensure that where dependent children will be affected by a case their parents are being represented in, legal aid will continue to be available subject to existing rules on financial suitability and the viability of the case.
For welfare benefit advice, currently 135,000 advice sessions per year are funded by legal aid. Under the Bill’s proposal, however, legal aid’s support for benefit advice is being abolished. In tribunal appeals where the applicant has legal advice, 55 per cent of all Department for Work and Pensions decisions to cut benefit are found to be wrong and are overturned. About 36,000 children are affected each year who come from the lowest income families, for whom losing the benefits they are entitled to will make a significant difference to their lives. As I have often said, childhood lasts a lifetime and the adversities children go through when they are young will in most cases stay with them for ever and affect their adult lives.
The Not Seen and Not Heard report, commissioned by Just Rights and the Law Society and published in September last year, found that 140,000 under-18 year-olds every year are likely to be affected as dependents by the withdrawal of legal funding for cases. That figure is made up of 68,000 children a year involved in family contact and finance disputes; more than 36,000 in cases where legal aid has been removed from welfare benefit cases involving their parents; and around 40,000 children affected by their parents’ housing, debt, consumer, immigration and clinical negligence cases, which currently are all supported by legal aid.
The children and young people who will be affected by these changes are some of the most vulnerable in England and Wales. Eighty per cent of young people reporting civil legal problems also face other challenges and disadvantages. These children and young people will be left to navigate the legal system and face the courts alone. This cannot be right and proper. We cannot let them down in this way because we know that when young people do not get advice, their problems escalate. Recent research showed links between civil legal problems and crime. Young people who had recently been arrested had higher levels of housing, debt and benefit problems—key factors associated with reoffending—and 55 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds who had been recently arrested reported experiencing at least one difficult-to-solve civil justice problem.
In a letter to the Times on 27 July 2011, the Justice Minister said:
“Legal aid will remain for children in almost all cases”.
This statement is not upheld by the proposal in the Bill, and we cannot justify this. We have to show fairness and compassion to all our children and young people, especially the disadvantaged, if we are to have social equality.
The Government say that their legal aid changes aim to save money, yet the costs of civil legal aid for children, mainly in advice, are small compared with the potential savings, and the cost of not providing advice is far greater. Research from Citizens Advice found that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state potentially saved £8.80. Reducing family legal aid provision will lead to more people representing themselves in the family courts in person. This will increase delays in the already overburdened court system and will raise administration costs. Costs may also be transferred to other state-funded services such as the social housing and benefits systems if inadequate and unfair settlements are agreed by those without legal advice. This will in the end be counterproductive. It is where we need common sense to prevail.
Many children's charities have given support to the amendment. The NSPCC stated that it was,
“gravely concerned about these proposals to remove legal aid, and thus access to justice, in many family cases ... This will mean that some of the most vulnerable members of our society will be subject to negative consequences resulting from the lack of expert legal advice needed to make vital decisions about … where a child should live or group they should have contact with”.
The Children's Society stated:
“Legal aid is already limited to those who cannot pay for legal assistance by any other means and thus provides a safety net to ensure protection and equality for the vulnerable and disadvantaged ... This includes children who will suffer as a knock on effect of limited access to justice for their parents or carers, whose decisions will impact on them”.
We must not turn our backs on the most vulnerable in our society—those without a voice and those who will most certainly be fundamentally affected. The proposals laid out in the Bill will do just that if the right safeguards are not put in place to protect children’s well-being. I hope that the Government will secure protection for this highly vulnerable group by ensuring that when children are involved, legal aid will continue to be provided. Finally, I leave my noble friend the Minister with this thought. Research shows that children in Britain are considered to be some of the most unhappy in the world. I plead with the Minister: let us not compound this. Please accept this amendment.
I have a number of anxieties about the impact of the Government’s proposals on children in painful and difficult situations. If the Minister can reassure me that my anxieties are misplaced I shall be more than pleased. However, I suspect that they are valid and that a number of amendments in this large group would be helpful.
First, I am concerned about inequality of arms. Wealthy people will be able to go to court armed with their lawyers while people on modest incomes will not. They will therefore appear either as litigants in person or cave in and be defeated because they lack the legal advice and support that would allow their case to be heard on a fair basis. Secondly, legal aid is to be confined to cases of physical or sexual assault. Surely that is too narrow. It will leave unhappy children in inappropriate residential and contact arrangements, split off perhaps from siblings and grandparents. We should surely widen the range of circumstances in which legal aid is available in support of children in those situations.
Thirdly, I think that there will be a perverse incentive. If an allegation of abuse would be a gateway to legal aid, some parents may be tempted to up the ante. In particular, we should be concerned that there may be cases where there has been some violence during the breakdown of the marriage or relationship but there is not a longstanding history of violence and there is no persuasive reason to suppose that there would be patterns of violence in the future; the violence has been generated by the crisis in the failure of the relationship. I do not think that it is in children’s interests that contact arrangements should be determined by such a factor. Of course, it will increase the private law workload of CAFCASS.
Fourthly, there is possibly another perverse incentive if a trigger for legal aid is to be the existence of a formal child protection plan. Some parents may be tempted to allege child maltreatment when other forms of help would be more appropriate and better for the children. Clogging up the child protection system could be disastrous. Again, more private law cases could spin over to the children’s social care workload which is already staggering following the Baby P case and will be under immense pressure with the cuts to come. There will be more formal child protection investigations and more case conferences, often when a more consensual approach would be more in the interests of the child. I fear that there will be increased and prolonged bitterness between parents.
Finally, while the Bill does not propose changes to legal aid for children and parents involved in public law care, clogging up the system with private law cases and litigants in person will have an adverse effect on the speedy resolution of such cases in the courts. That will be harmful, particularly to young children for whom it is very important to have a speedy return to permanent family arrangements, whether with parents, relatives or adopters.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 34 standing in my name and the names of my noble friends Lord Newton of Braintree and Lord Cormack and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
The reductions to the provision of legal aid as proposed in the Bill will leave 40,000 children and 69,000 18 to 24 year-olds struggling with serious legal problems relating to employment, education, welfare benefits, homelessness and debt. Children and young people affected by these changes are among the most vulnerable in our society, with 80 per cent, as we have already heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, of young people reporting civil legal problems also facing challenges and great disadvantages.
The cost of legal aid for children is small compared with the total amount spent on legal aid. The cost of fully protecting all children up to the age of 18 from the cuts to legal aid would be £10 million, which is the equivalent to the cost of imprisoning just 71 young offenders. For young people aged 18 to 24, the cost is £40 million, less than half the weekly cost of youth unemployment. The cost of not providing appropriate legal advice is far greater. We know that when young people do not get advice their problems increase. There are well researched links between civil legal problems and crime. Many young people who have been arrested have higher levels of housing problems, debt and benefit problems, all of which are key factors influencing reoffending. Fifty-five per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds arrested were experiencing at least one difficult to solve civil justice problem.
There is substantial evidence of an adverse impact of legal problems on young people’s mental and emotional health, with 34 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds not in employment, education or training reporting stress-related illness as a result, and more than one-third going on to use National Health Service services. Citizens Advice estimates, as we have heard before, that for every £1 saved by the removal of legal aid, the Government will spend £8 dealing with the social, judicial and health issues that will result.
Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice give a breakdown of the types of cases for which children and young people use legal aid to help deal with their problems. The top four legal issues for children and young people are debt, housing and welfare benefits, asylum and immigration. Help with legal representation is most often given for housing, immigration and clinical negligence. Eighty per cent of young people reporting legal problems also face other disadvantages, including sole parenthood, having a mental health issue, being a victim of crime, or exclusion from education, employment and training.
It is disturbing to note that many children and young people in the United Kingdom meet the criteria for vulnerability. Thirty per cent of households headed by a 16 to 24 year-old live in poverty and 36 per cent of people presenting as homeless in the three months January to March 2011 were aged 16 to 24. The latest unemployment figures show that 20.2 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds are unemployed. In 2010 approximately 225,000 young people aged 16 to 24 lived alone.
These are very serious issues for society. We have to ask why so many young people are in such a vulnerable position. However, for us today the issue is to recognise the needs that these children have and the help that legal aid can give in enabling them to turn their lives around. The Government’s proposals will remove from the scope of legal aid most cases concerning education, including disputes about exclusion, school closure issues, bullying cases, disputes about poor educational standards, disputes about grants and loans, and cases about choice of school. Only education cases involving discrimination and special educational needs will qualify for legal aid support but then only for telephone advice.
These plans will leave 29 per cent of children who are currently represented in their educational needs cases without legal representation in court. Pupils with special educational needs are eight times more likely to be excluded permanently or for a fixed period than other children. There is a strong correlation between exclusion from schooling and falling foul of the criminal justice system. Removing legal aid support that enables children to challenge exclusion may have more children turning to crime, which would lead to future youth justice costs for the Government.
I fully appreciate the Government’s desire to reduce the UK deficit, but in order for any savings to contribute to this reduction, the reforms must not generate consequential costs or the shunting of costs to other government departments. The Justice Select Committee in another place reported that the magnitude of these knock-on costs had not been estimated. I sincerely hope that, on the basis that these proposed savings of £270 million from the legal aid budget will not achieve the aim of reducing costs, the Minister will consider seriously the effect of proposed savings on the vulnerable children involved and the additional cost to the public purse of implementing the changes unamended.
My Lords, I support Amendments 33 and 34. I have been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, to present his apologies as he is unable to be here to take part in this debate. I will also speak to other specific amendments that are in my name.
Of course I recognise the need to save money, but equally we must remember the importance of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child in family cases, as set out in Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989, which is still good law. My amendments are all practical and based on practical and personal experience of how family cases work. In this part of the Bill there is a real danger that the welfare of the child may be downgraded and even overlooked if these amendments and subsequent amendments that affect children are ignored by the Government.
Amendments 33 and 34 show how children are affected by civil and family law proceedings, either indirectly or directly, and recognise that children have separate interests to their parents—it hardly needs to be said that they are obviously far less well equipped to represent themselves and their interests. There is a serious gap that will, from time to time, need to be plugged.
Amendments 33 and 34 refer to one group in particular: children who are involved in immigration proceedings. There are five possible situations that may affect children on immigration issues: they may be facing separation from their parents because of a decision to remove a parent where the child has British citizenship; they may be facing separation because of a decision to remove the child from the United Kingdom although the parents may be here; children who are refugees or whose parents are refugees may be unable to join or be joined by their parents; or they may be unaccompanied asylum seeker children applying for an extension of discretionary leave to remain. I shall deal with victims of trafficking who are also covered by immigration issues under Amendment 61A.
I will move on to Amendments 39, 40 and 41, to speak about child abduction both internationally and in England—or in the United Kingdom. I am sure that the Minister will know that children who are abducted from one part of the United Kingdom to another country outside the United Kingdom will almost always come under the international Hague convention, because some 90 countries support it. However, internal child abduction also arises on a regular basis and is an equally important risk in parental disputes. To my dismay, there appears to be no provision to support the children and the parent who has lost the child through child abduction. Ninety-one per cent of the members of Resolution, the family law solicitors, say that abduction is a real risk in the cases which they and their clients are dealing with.
I shall cite a case which was referred to earlier this evening by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan—she dealt with Belfast and Barnstaple, while I have Cornwall and Cumbria, but it is all exactly the same story. If a child is taken from Basildon to Belfast—which is in fact under a different legal system, but within the United Kingdom—or indeed from Cornwall to Cumbria, where it is the same legal system, there is a very real danger that that child may never see the left-behind parent again, and the left-behind parent will not have the chance to look after and take an interest in that child.
It is absolutely crucial that the left-behind parent gets to the court quickly, to get the relevant orders to know where the child and the parent—usually the mother—are living, and to get orders for the child to be returned to its home. It is necessary to make immediate and urgent applications to a judge. However, there is no provision for this, although there is provision, as there has to be, under the Hague convention. Amendment 41 deals with the various orders that are required to be made for the left-behind parent to get to the court. I hope that this is inadvertent on the part of the Government. I hope that they have simply overlooked this particular specialist form of family law, where the child is seriously at risk in most cases if she or he does not have a chance to retain a relationship with the father.
Amendment 42 is rather specialised; it refers to cases where a vulnerable adult—often a woman who has been badly treated by her partner—goes to court for a protection order, and has to face the man who she says has been abusing her, and who will be cross-examining her. It is an extremely unsatisfactory situation, and for the woman—or occasionally the man—who is the victim to have to be cross-examined by the alleged perpetrator, is a form of extra abuse.
I move to Amendment 51, which is, if I may respectfully say to the Minister, particularly important. It deals with the issue of mediation. I am totally in support of mediation. It is the most sensible arrangement you can possibly have as far as it goes. However, the Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, gave an interesting lecture some time ago in which he criticised the Government for treating mediation as the panacea for all ills, pointing out that it only went so far. Indeed, it does only go so far. I am totally supportive of the good intentions of the Government on mediation. However, Resolution—I come to it again—assess that 41 per cent of its cases are incapable of mediation. There are occasions when the mediator throws up his or hands in horror and says, “I cannot possibly mediate in this case”. It is perfectly obvious that forced mediation is no mediation at all.
Perhaps I may respectfully say that the Government have failed to take on board that there is a group of parents who for a variety of reasons—including drink, drugs, mental health issues or, if I can use the phrase, sheer bloody-mindedness—will not agree to anything. Over the years I tried those cases again and again. The only way that we ever got the chance of a settlement or a proper, sensible outcome, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, will also say, was by two lawyers banging the heads of the parents together. For some of those intractable cases, they got a result. Collaborative law is another way of getting such a result.
I will not go through Amendment 51 at this hour, but I would ask the Minister to look at each paragraph of the amendment for the circumstances in which it would be the mediator and not the parties who would say, “This case is not fit for mediation. It needs to go to court and it needs lawyers”. I make no apology for reminding the Minister that the welfare of the child is paramount. In these cases, it is the child who suffers.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Norgrove report on family law. In that report emphasis was placed on that very narrow line between public and private law where risk to the child overlapped the two. How on earth will the judge deal with the really serious risk factors where two parents are unfit to make sensible decisions about what should happen to their child; where social workers cannot be brought into the case if they do not agree and judges do not have the power to make social workers start care proceedings; and where guardians are not all that easy to find? CAFCASS is doing an excellent job these days but it is at the limit of its ability to cope. If judges feel that the lawyers are not there to try to settle the case and deal with the worries and needs of the children, he will have to bring in a guardian, which will cause an enormous delay and the child will suffer.
I should like the Minister to take on board the fact that parents are creating the problems. They are not solving the problems, and they are not able to solve them without a combination of the judge, the lawyers and, often, the guardian. In the absence of lawyers, I do not know how this group of private law cases will manage.
As to Amendment 51, there are also situations where one parent—very often the mother, often for no good reason—refuses to have contact with the other parent and absolutely refuses to turn up to mediation. The mediation would not get off the ground and the case would have to go to court. The child is being deprived of a parent and, without lawyers, the judge would have great difficulties. That is quite apart from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on the clogging-up of the courts. I know from my experience that a case involving two litigants absolutely intending to fight would not take less than a week. Absolutely rightly, the Government are keen to speed up public law cases. They are very keen to get adoptions dealt with quickly. Private law cases will clog the courts to the exclusion of public law and adoption cases.
Finally, Amendment 52 deals with the potential cross-examination of the child by a parent. Where the child is making allegations about the way in which the parent has behaved and there is no legal aid, the parent against whom the allegations are made may find himself cross-examining his own child, which is another form of abuse of the child. It would be extremely serious if that took place. I ask the Minister to reflect on these situations—which are not intended to open the floodgates, but intended to deal with specific problems that are very real and cannot just be ridden over as if they do not matter.
My Lords, this group of amendments contains tremendous overlap. It is for that reason, among others, that your Lordships will see a number of our names on one another’s amendments. I am very happy to follow my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, because we could not have a greater expert in what happens in courts. I am sure that we have all taken in everything that she was discussing just now.
I shall concentrate on the amendment that I have tabled, which is to do with young people with disability. As it stands, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will lead to some 75,000 young people under 25 losing legal aid each year. This amendment would provide particular protection for young disabled people.
Young people with a disability have usually received special protection and additional access to services in recognition of the fact that they may, and probably will, need additional support. The amendment would ensure that they continued to be able to access legal aid up to the age of 24. The definition of disability is that used in the Equality Act 2010, which identifies a person as having a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment and if this impairment is expected to have a substantial and long- term adverse effect on their ability to perform normal day-to-day activities.
Other amendments to the Bill seek to protect access to legal aid for all children aged up to 18, but there is a significant precedent for extending additional protection to young people up to the age of 24 and particularly to young people with disabilities. The Connexions service, which was set up to provide help and advice to young people aged 13 to 19, extended this help to young people up to the age of 24 who had a disability or learning difficulty, encompassing those with a statement of special educational needs, mental health difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders, dyslexia, ADHD and physical, sensory and cognitive impairments.
We also know that disabled young people are more likely to experience legal problems than other young people or older people with disabilities. Data from the Civil and Social Justice Survey showed that 56 per cent of under-25 year-olds with long-term disabilities had experienced problems compared to 35 per cent of all young people. It also found that young disabled people were more likely to experience legal problems than older people with a disability—51 per cent compared with 37 per cent. Disabled young people in general were more likely to experience multiple legal problems, in particular problems relating to housing, debt and welfare benefits.
JustRights, a coalition of more than 30 organisations in the children’s, youth and legal advice sector co-ordinated by the Law Centres Federation and Youth Access, has provided me with a case study which shows how legal advice can be vital in helping young disabled people to access their rights.
Chantelle was 18 when she came to the law centre for help. She had been born with cerebral palsy and had great difficulty walking. Her parents had to drive her to college and were worried that they could not afford to buy her a car and that she would be unable to attend university. They had applied for disability living allowance for Chantelle, but had been refused. The law centre helped Chantelle appeal against the refusal, gathering evidence from her school and her hospital specialist and representing her at the benefit tribunal hearing. Chantelle was successful in her appeal and was awarded the low rate of the care component of DLA and the higher rate of the mobility component. She swapped her mobility payment for a Motability car and passed her driving test. Chantelle now has a place at university and will be able to drive herself there each day, making a huge difference to her independence and quality of life, and probably her ability not to be dependant on other forms of public support. We know that advice provided early in cases such as Chantelle’s is cost-effective, and saves money in the long run through preventing the costs of problems spiralling.
I support all the amendments in this group. I hope that this particular modest amendment will receive a sympathetic hearing and acceptance by the noble Lord, the Minister, and I hope that he will give equal consideration to the equally important amendments that others are proposing.
I speak to Amendments 80A, 82A, 82B and 82C. Perhaps I may first say how delighted I am to be speaking after so many passionate speeches about children, children’s welfare, and children’s rights by so many noble Lords, because children are a touchstone as to how we treat those who need help. My Amendment 82A simply adds to the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and she has spoken to that so I will not deal with it.
Before I speak to this group of amendments in my name I would like to add briefly to the concerns expressed so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. Before the dinner break, the noble Lord, Lord Newton, talked about the costs of taking children into care. He implied that there are—and I know that there are—huge costs in terms of finance and of social adjustment and academic achievement.
There is also a group of people whom we have not talked about this evening but whom I want to talk about: family-and-friends carers who can prevent children going into care and make sure they are well looked after. I want to make a plea for those people. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, was good enough to meet me and the Family Rights Alliance and a young family carer to discuss this. I hope he will be sympathetic. In a Green Paper on legal aid reform, the Government announced that they propose to withdraw legal aid from private law children applications. This will include applications by family-and-friends carers. A number of organisations concerned with the interests of children living with family-and-friends carers have raised anxieties about the impact of these proposals because such carers might in future be prevented, through lack of legal aid, from applying for the relevant order to provide permanence for a child, particularly when the other party in the proceedings, who is alleged to have failed in their parenting task, may be their son or daughter.
Following consultation on the Green Paper, the Government announced that a private law application would be retained within the scope of public funding, where the application was with a view to protecting the child who is at risk of abuse. This is not really the point. Clause 11 of the current Bill deals with the availability of public funding where the child is at risk of abuse. However the Government have made it clear that they will by regulation require that evidence of abuse is provided by the applicant in order for the application for public funding to be successful. This has its own limitations. The effect will be to prevent family members taking action to protect children when they are first at risk of harm—for example, when they are first subject to child protection enquiries. The 12-month time limit referred to in the Government’s response to consultation could also prevent a family-and-friends carer applying to court to take on the care of a child who is within the care system for more than 12 months. These potential carers will therefore not qualify for public funding to apply for residence or special guardianship orders because they fall outside the 12-month time limit. It is essential that family-and-friends carers with such an order have access to public funding to be legally represented at such applications. It is vital that the Government do not introduce such restrictions to legal aid, and I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on this, if not now then later.
I turn to my Amendments 80A, 80B and 82C. These seek to retain access to legal aid for young people aged up to 24 in social welfare cases. As it stand, the Bill will lead to nearly 26,000 people aged under 25 losing legal aid for social welfare cases each year—for example, over 9,000 for debt and 9,000 welfare benefit cases. The figure for employment cases is almost 2,000, while the 500,000 housing cases cost about £1.5 million.
The coalition has made commitments to support children and young people. For example, the recent Positive for Youth paper states that:
“This Government is passionate about creating a society that is positive for youth. Young people matter. They are important to us now, and to our future, and we need them to flourish”.
The MP Dr Julian Huppert supported this by saying that the Liberal Democrat youth policy included a commitment to providing young people with access to specialist support and advice on legal aid and responsibilities.
Young people’s alienation from the legal system and, in turn, from mainstream society needs to be addressed. Research, which has been quoted before, has shown that many young people view the legal system as there for their punishment rather than for their protection. Reform of legal aid provides a golden opportunity to create a more modern, client-centred system that does not serve to exclude this important section of society.
Protecting access to social welfare legal aid for all children and young people under the age of 25 would cost just £5.8 million a year. In comparison, the Prince’s Trust estimates the weekly cost of youth unemployment at £20 million. Protecting legal aid for young people with disabilities and for care leavers is likely to cost a very modest amount. I wonder if the numbers for these groups have been costed along with the other costs associated with them.
We know that many of the children and young people who seek help with social welfare problems are highly vulnerable and are unlikely to be able to navigate the legal system without help. Recent research shows that 80 per cent of 16 to 24 year-olds with civil justice problems fall into at least one vulnerable group—for example, they may have a disability or mental health problems, or they may have been a victim of crime. Half of the young people seeking advice are not in education, employment or training.
The Government’s recently published youth policy, which I quoted earlier, says that disadvantaged and vulnerable young people can be at risk of poor outcomes and need additional and early help to overcome the challenges that they face. Changing the Welfare Reform Bill may mean that more young people with disabilities face social welfare problems. The Bill removes the youth condition for qualification for employment and support allowance, which allowed disabled young people to qualify automatically for the contributory form of benefit. That means that many more disabled young people could potentially face means testing, although of course the House discussed this last week. The Bill also seeks to replace the disability living allowance with the personal independence payment, which will require a face-to-face assessment to qualify. This may lead to young people needing help to understand the new benefit regime.
With youth unemployment now over 1 million, this group of young people will be in particular need of support over the next few years and we cannot afford to abandon them. However, advice services for young people are already being cut. Local authorities are trying to spend 38 per cent less this year than last year on Connexions, the national information, advice and guidance service for 13 to 19 year-olds. Research by Youth Access, the national membership organisation for young people’s information, advice and counselling, found that 42 per cent of their members faced the risk of closure this year. Advice for children and young people can help stop problems escalating, generating considerable long-term cost savings. A new report by Youth Access on the impact of advice shows that removing legal advice from vulnerable children and young people may save money in the short term but actually cost more in the long term.
Each year, 750,000 young people become mentally and physically ill because of their unresolved social welfare problems. This costs the NHS about £250 million a year. Seven per cent of young people lose their homes. Savings made through denying children and young people civil legal services are likely to be outweighed by costs in the criminal legal aid budget alone, as has been said already.
Disadvantaged young adults are particularly likely to experience social welfare problems and to benefit from advice. They are more likely than the population as a whole to experience welfare problems and to report adverse consequences as a results of their problems, in particular, stress-related illness, violence aimed at them, loss of their home, loss of confidence and physical ill-health. They benefit from receiving services.
It is very short-sighted of the Government not to support young people on these issues. We have seen, and have heard tonight, how intervening early can prevent problems later on. It can also save a great deal of money. Some of the proposals in this Bill are likely to result in problems and more costs in relation to young people, for example, in criminal justice issues later on. It will prove only harmful to young people, and, as I said, the problems will have to be mopped up later on. It is really quite grotesque to risk alienating children and young people and depriving them of their rights, which will improve their lives and engage them in legal systems which they often mistrust. The financial and well-being costs could be severe. I beg the Government and the Minister to think very seriously about what everybody has been saying this evening.
My Lords, I shall speak to my Amendment 79B, and also speak in support of the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who has just spoken very fully about them.
I do not want to detain the House any longer than necessary. My Amendment 79B is merely designed to ensure that the needs of children, and the cases where they need access to legal aid, are included in the section of the schedule about inequality, which without the amendment excludes mention of children. I am sure that the August riots last year alerted us all to the unemployment situation of youngsters, which has been referred to by many noble Lords, and also the alarming alienation from society of too many of our young people.
Many times, in this House, in connection with other Bills, I have quoted the fact that the only raw material that every nation has in common is its people, and woe betide it if it does not do everything it can to identify, nurture and develop the talents of all its people. If it does not, it only has itself to blame if it fails. That means particularly that, in the interests of tomorrow, we must identify, nurture and develop the talents of our young people, because they are our tomorrow.
This weekend I shared the joy that I am sure many other Members of this House share, as I was with an 11 year-old grandson. During the weekend, I reflected that it simply is not reasonable to expect children and young people to negotiate an adult legal system without legal advice, assistance or representation. I also reflected that it is very important to understand the impact of brain development on the competence and problem-solving ability of young people, because that part of the brain develops last. Therefore, their ability to make complex decisions that will affect their future, or ensure their best interests, is the last to emerge. If we are being serious about the long-term future, it must be wrong to do anything wilfully that interrupts that whole process. This particularly applies to children’s access to the very complex legal situations that have been described so graphically by many noble Lords.
I notice that in October 2010, Sarah Teather, the Minister of State for Children and Families, said that the best interests of the child would be a primary consideration in all government legislation. Many other noble Lords have mentioned this Bill’s links to the Welfare Reform Bill, the Health and Social Care Bill and the education Bills. I wonder, and ask the Minister, whether, in the preparation of this clause, there has been full consultation with all the other departments involved about the parts of those Bills that have an impact on children in the light of what the Minister said about the best interests of the child being the primary consideration. As I have listened to what has been said so graphically around the Committee this evening—and I am sure that the Minister has, too—I question whether the measures that the Government are proposing really are in the best interests of the children of this country.
My Lords, there are 13 amendments in this group. The Committee will be relieved to know that I intend to speak to only one of them. The thing that links all these amendments is what my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss described earlier as the paramount interests of the child. That is at the heart of what all of us who come to the debate have in mind.
My noble friend Lady O’Loan, in moving Amendment 33, the amendment to which I should like to speak, said that the key issue here was how this legislation and these proceedings would affect the family and the child. I was struck by a letter that appeared in the Times last week, signed by the most reverend Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Southwark. He joined those who have spoken so eloquently in your Lordships’ House this evening in stating that the Bill will, in his words,
“affect thousands of children whose parents are involved in civil cases”.
He went on to warn that,
“the result is likely to be increased long-term public costs and greater suffering”.
The Government have consistently and rightly talked about the importance of responsible parenting in a child’s development. Indeed, when the Prime Minister discussed the structures necessary for giving children the best start in life, he identified them as “strong and secure families” and “confident and able parents”. Yet how can a parent be expected to remain secure or confident when they face debt that could lead to their utilities being cut off; a discrepancy over benefit payments that could leave them unable to pay for the weekly shopping; or even a compensation claim over an injury leaving them unable to work—all without adequate advice or representation? It is perverse that the Government should, on the one hand, rightly emphasise responsible parenting, and then take away the very mechanisms for securing families’ basic legal remedies on the other. The challenges posed by the Bill will be felt sorely enough by individuals in the vast range of situations already mentioned in your Lordships’ House today and in previous debates, some of which I referred to in my Second Reading speech. Such challenges will only be exacerbated for those with dependent children for whom they need to provide and care.
The experience of those working on the front line underscores the fact that for many parents civil legal aid is no less than an essential component in securing legal redress for their families in some of the most serious and threatening cases. It was the magnificent Lord Bingham who once remarked:
“Legal aid is a service which the modern state owes to its citizens as a matter of principle”.
But principle, along with access to justice, seems to have become an early casualty in our sharp-elbowed Britain. The national charity, Housing Justice, emphasises:
“Housing cases involving families and children are frequently lengthy and complicated, so legal aid is vital if justice is to be done”.
It further remarks:
“It is imperative that children in particular … do not have their misery prolonged because of the difficulty in getting legal redress”.
The House needs to consider today the genuine human suffering that thousands of children will face as a direct consequence of restrictions to their parents’ legal aid entitlement.
As we have heard from my noble friend and many others during the debate today, and from people within the charitable sector, the hardship likely to result will be compounded by the simultaneous changes to the social security system. Many of those changes are complex and will leave many of the most vulnerable families more in need than ever of legal support. This has on more than one occasion been described as a “pincer movement” against the United Kingdom’s poorest. Depressingly, it reinforces the impression that we are not all in it together and that only those with sharp elbows will survive.
In researching the likely effects of the Welfare Reform Bill, the Catholic Church’s social action arm, Caritas Social Action Network, heard from a client of the admirable Cardinal Hume Centre in Westminster, only a stone’s throw away from this place. This lady, a single mother of three children, who is currently studying, was asked about the likely impact on her family if she fell victim to the new provisions on the recovery of benefit overpayments. Her response was simple:
“My kids and I would suffer”.
She went on to state:
“I would struggle to buy anything apart from food”.
Were she to find herself in this situation, as many individuals and families are likely to, she would have to face it without the professional advice or support that such complex and technical issues may well necessitate. She would ultimately be left with the choice of trying to challenge a decision herself, balancing this with her studies and with raising her young family, or she would have to take it as a hit without dispute, consequently being left with just enough to put food on the table. I dare say that in some cases parents will be left struggling to do even that. How is this in any sense a fair or just state of affairs?
A very similar case has been drawn to my attention by Caritas in the northern diocese of Salford. It involves another single mother, training to become a beautician, who received a letter regarding an error in her benefit payments which stated that if she did not repay an amount owed her current benefits would stop. In the event, she was able successfully to challenge the decision and continue her training, but once the 135,000 benefit cases each year are taken out of the scope of legal aid how many like her will be left without any suitable recourse? Of course, the impressive work undertaken by the charitable sector will mitigate some of the impact. However, as I said in the earlier debate about disability, from the experience that I have had during my time as patron of a charity dealing with children’s issues I know that it is already overwhelmed, and will be increasingly overwhelmed in the future, especially with the cuts to local government funding and the funding that comes in turn to those voluntary organisations. The sheer volume of cases, many involving a significant degree of complexity, will inevitably leave families falling through the gaps.
I particularly want to draw the Committee’s attention to the Caritas community worker's commentary on the case which I have just mentioned. That caseworker says that the mother,
“is trying to develop a positive future for her family through gaining qualifications that will hopefully lead to employment but the stress of her situation could have harmed these goals”.
The removal of support in such cases will not be a mere inconvenience to parents; it will be a genuine challenge to their best efforts to create a safe and supportive environment for their children to grow up in. In the long run this will, of course, result in significant costs to the state, in economic as well as human terms, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham and others. Many noble Lords have indicated that they are familiar with research from Citizens Advice, which highlights that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice as much as £8.80 could be saved in public expenditure. In cases involving children who suffer as a result of their parent’s case, the true cost may be far higher. That is penny wise but pound foolish.
Finally, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the devastating effects that the withdrawal of legal aid for immigration cases will have on children. Another study from the Cardinal Hume Centre relates to a client with twin girls, aged three. Legal aid was essential to resolving the immigration issues that had created immense difficulties in securing housing and left her at risk of being split from her children. It seems hard to justify denying support in such situations, which would appear certain once again to result in human suffering and, ultimately, public costs.
As highlighted by noble Lords promoting this and the other amendments, there are many areas beyond benefit cases and immigration cases in which children will be hurt by the provisions of this Bill. I commend the report Not Seen and Not Heard, by Sound Off For Justice and Just Rights, which outlines in detail the worrying scope and scale of all this.
It was Churchill who once said that you measure the degree of civilisation of a society by how it treats its weakest members. Surely that is the test that we should apply when considering the ramifications of the provisions of the Bill. I hope that when he replies to these 13 amendments the Minister will give us some assurance that he will go away and consider further some of the arguments that have been advanced.
My Lords, I will be brief but I have six big guns to call in aid. I support Amendment 34 in the name of my noble friend Lady Eaton and the sensible proposals of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about child abduction and mediation.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned the comments of my right honourable friend the Minister for Children, Sarah Teather, about the best interests of the child. She was of course talking about the child’s rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Big gun number one is Article 4 of the UNCRC, which states that the Government must take,
“all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures”,
to ensure the realisation of rights protected under the UNCRC, and must also apply,
“the maximum extent of their available resources”,
to this purpose. This convention right is engaged by the Bill. It is one of the important general measures of the convention.
Big gun number two is Article 6 of the ECHR, which states:
“It is central to the concept of a fair trial, in civil as in criminal proceedings, that a litigant is not denied the opportunity to present his or her case effectively before the court … and that he or she is able to enjoy equality of arms with the opposing side”.
The Children’s Commissioner stated the blindingly obvious in her letter of 6 January to the Secretary of State. She said:
“Children, by virtue of their age and capacity, will not be able to present their case effectively in the majority of proceedings”.
I share her concern and that of the Joint Committee on Human rights that,
“the ability of the Director of Legal Aid Casework to grant exceptional funding is insufficient to make rights practically effective due to the need”,
to speed things up. She also stated that,
“children without legal advice and assistance will encounter difficulties even in accessing a determination by the Director”.
Big gun number three is Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that states parties,
“shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child”.
Article 12 states in particular that the child shall,
“be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or appropriate body”.
Big gun number four is the whole of Article 3 about the best interests of the child, which has been quoted by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It is also enshrined in UK law in the Education Act 1986.
Big guns numbers five and six are the Hague convention and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. As she has already fired her fiery cannonballs at my noble friend, he does not need my bit of buckshot to add to them.
Those are international convention obligations to which we have signed up voluntarily. We now need to step up to the mark and honour them. If we do not, we will be taken to the international court. It is as simple as that.
I shall speak in support of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in particular on Amendment 41, which deals with child abduction. I saw the Minister wave his white hanky, which I hope is a sign of peace. If we are to look after what is in the paramount interest of a child, in most circumstances, that means contact with both parents. In the absence of legal aid, the parent who does not want to have contact effective—who wants to frustrate contact—will simply up sticks and go off with the child. If that happens, it is extremely important that measures are taken instantly to return the child because, if not, the child will become accustomed to living in the place to which it is abducted and it will be much more difficult to get it back. Absence of legal aid will encourage people to do that, which is of great concern.
My Lords, the Minister has had a powerful display of the House’s feeling on these matters. It is of note that not one person has spoken during Committee in support of the Government's position. Perhaps that is not surprising. When we consider issues that refer to children who have not been responsible for poor conduct but have found themselves in difficult and painful positions, the House has always spoken with one voice to protect the child and ensure that their rights are upheld. That is something that all sides of this House have always agreed and acted on in unison. I, for one, am not surprised that we have had powerful speeches from all Benches about the paramount interests of the child and the need to ensure that legal advice and support is available.
If the Government's proposals succeed, as the House knows, they will mean that more than 210,000 fewer private family cases will qualify for legal help; 45,000 fewer private family cases will qualify for legal representation; and 68,000 children will be affected by legal aid being removed for family contact and finance disputes. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke about the importance of family contact, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton.
The reason that there is unison on that issue is that any noble Lord who has participated in family cases knows the difficulty that such contact cases promote. Of the 68,000 children who will be deprived of legal aid, the majority fall within the poorest sector of society, because 95 per cent of those in receipt of civil and family legal help are in the bottom income quintile. That means that they are most in need of help, support and succour. The social implications are considerable. Fifty-seven per cent of the members of Resolution who were surveyed believe that parents risk losing contact with their children in at least half of its cases. That amounts to more than 4,000 children according to the lawyers surveyed alone.
The rise in the number of litigants in person for whom mediation is unsuitable and legal aid is unavailable will add more pressure to the court system, which is facing the closure of 40 per cent of courts. Ninety-nine per cent of those asked said that cases take longer when parties represent themselves, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, gave graphic examples of what will happen when a case takes a week. At the moment, more than 90 per cent of private family law cases are settled. The 10 per cent which go to law are the most intractable and most difficult.
Family law is slightly different from many other forms of litigation. Most family lawyers worth their salt see their job as damage limitation because, when a family breaks down, everyone loses and there are no winners. Therefore, if a case has to go to court, we are dealing with even greater failure. The court has grown accustomed to relying on lawyers who, in this area, are not rich fat cats. Over half of those surveyed who practise family law earn less than £35,000 and a fifth earn less than £25,000, which is less than the UK’s median annual salary. We are dealing with people who are trying to give succour to families.
The wide spectrum of law that has been spoken about—welfare law, family law and housing law—all interact. Stephen Cobb, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, put it succinctly when he said that without access to justice—by which he meant effective access—for broken families, wider society would pay a very high price indeed. That is what we have heard echoing right around the Chamber from virtually every single speaker today.
The Family Justice Review has identified that in a significant number of cases serious child welfare and safeguarding concerns are raised when families appear in a private law court case, and those can trigger investigations by local authorities and result in public law proceedings. Statistics in the NSPCC’s report of November 2011, All Babies Count, show that around 20,000 children are living with a parent who has used class A drugs in the past year—we are talking about babies under a year old—around 100,000 live with a parent who is a problem drinker, and around 150,000 live with a parent who has a common mental health problem. One in every two cohabiting couples will have split by the time their children are five years old, and at least half of these children will face a parental breakdown. Not all couples will require a courtroom but, for those who do, many vulnerable adults will have no access to justice in private law and will be left with a choice of mediation or litigation in person—litigation which will add to, not detract from the difficulties that the family is likely to face.
For all the reasons that have been given powerfully by every single speaker, I seriously ask the noble Lord to think again. I respectfully suggest that the Government’s approach to this issue lacks foresight. It lacks full consideration of the consequences of the Bill for families for whom legal funding is not available, legal advice is not affordable and mediation is unlikely to be suitable. The cost of mediation is currently estimated by the Government to be between £6,000 and £10,000. If the Government’s own figures are right, the research indicates that it is likely to cost £48 million to undertake the mediation proposed. If half of those cases do not succeed in reaching a settlement, we will be left with dealing with them in the court in a way that is unlikely to be helpful if legal advice and support are not made available.
One of the benefits of having had such powerful speeches and it now being so late is that the noble Lord will have one relief: namely, that I do not intend to deal with each and every speech seriatim. I know that that at least is something which will make him smile, although I suppose that nothing else from this debate is likely to. I invite him to take away from this debate the strong expression made by every single speaker that what this Government are proposing is unjust, wrong, and should no longer continue. The noble Lord may think that he will get rejoicing not only in the ranks by further waving the white handkerchief. If that wave is to say he concedes, I can tell him that there will be much rejoicing in heaven.
Of course, having listened to a debate dominated by what I acknowledge is a great deal of expertise and experience in this area, I will go away to ponder and think about what has been said, and discuss it with my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor. At this time of night, like the noble Baroness I think it is better if I put on the record our approach and we can then resume on Wednesday.
Amendments 33, 34, 39, 40, 41, 51, 52, 79B, 80, 80A, 82A, 82B and 82C all concern legal aid for children and young people, or people with dependent children. Others refer to the use of mediation in family cases. While—as I have said—I acknowledge the expertise and experience on display today, and while I understand what motivates these amendments, I ask the House in turn to acknowledge the economic realities behind the difficult decisions that we have been forced to take.
As the House is well aware, the Government’s approach has been to look at every area of law where legal aid is provided, and to consider whether it should continue, and in what form. In developing our proposals, we have considered carefully a number of factors, including: the importance and complexity of the issue; the litigant’s ability to present their own case; the availability of alternative sources of funding; and the availability of other routes to resolution. We have used these factors to prioritise funding so that civil legal services will be available in the highest priority cases; for example, where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home, or for domestic violence remedies, or where children may be taken into care.
A number of noble Lords have drawn inferences that this is a cruel and uncaring Government; as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, a government for the sharp elbowed. Let me just put on record at this stage and remind noble Lords that even after our reforms are in place we will still be spending £120 million of funding per year for private family law, including domestic violence; an extra £10 million per year on mediation; £50 million on categories of social welfare law; £6 million on clinical negligence; and £2 million on education. That is why I sometimes bridle at suggestions that we are destroying the legal aid system. We are trying to manage an overall cut in legal aid that will still leave us with—as I have said before—one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world.
Amendment 33 applies to all civil and family proceedings, and seeks to bring into scope civil legal services for many areas of law that are excluded where the individual has a child who is dependent on them. The intention appears to be that this group of people should receive civil legal services because of the potential impact on their children of the withdrawal of legal aid. The amendment would retain funding across the board for people with dependent children, without regard to the relative priority and alternative methods of resolving disputes, and would lose the bulk of the £170 million of annual savings, as most family law cases involve a respondent or applicant who has dependent children. It would also significantly impact on the £110 million saving in other areas of civil law. We have not sought simply to retain legal aid for any case where the individual has a child. Doing so would mean expending limited funds on a range of cases: some important, some not as important and some where alternative ways of resolving the dispute would be preferable. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will not press the amendment.
Amendment 79B would bring all civil non-family matters within scope for children, with the exception of work relating to breach of a statutory duty, the making of wills, trust law and business cases. Amendment 82C seeks to bring into scope civil legal services covering welfare benefits, debt, housing and employment for those aged 24 or under or who are represented by a legal guardian. Amendment 82B seeks to bring into scope civil legal services in relation to advice and proceedings where the person is a care leaver under the age of 21 in wide-ranging civil and family areas specified in the amendment. Amendment 79B would mean that nearly all civil cases would be brought into scope if the applicant were a child. It is worth making it absolutely clear that in civil cases, claims brought in the name of a child are usually conducted by their parents acting as the child’s litigation friend rather than by the child themselves. This accords with the normal rules of civil litigation. The civil justice system as a whole does not generally require children to act on their own behalf.
I turn now to the rest of the amendments in the group. Providing blanket funding for all cases where the child or young person is the applicant would be costly, unnecessary and might create perverse incentives for parents to attempt to bring civil litigation in their children's name purely to secure funding in otherwise out-of-scope areas of law. The Government recognise the importance of funding in a range of cases where children's interests are paramount. This is reflected in the decisions that we have reached. As a result we have protected funding in areas that specifically involve children. We have retained legal aid for child protection cases, civil cases concerning the abuse of a child, and for cases concerning special educational needs assistance. We have also made special provision so that legal aid will be available for children who are made parties to private family proceedings.
There will also be an exceptional funding scheme that will ensure the protection of an individual's rights to legal aid under the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as those rights to legal aid that are directly enforceable under European Union law. Each case will be decided on its own facts, but in cases where Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights is engaged, the ability of the client to present their own case, the complexity of the issues and the importance of the issues at stake will be relevant factors when a decision is taken on whether to grant exceptional funding. Therefore, where a child brings an action without a litigation friend, this will be an important factor in deciding whether they have the ability to present their case.
Amendments 80 and 80A seek to bring into scope civil legal services for any person who is under 24 and has a disability. They include but do not limit themselves to particular areas of scope that are excluded. Amendment 82A seeks to bring into scope civil legal services in relation to advice and proceedings for any person who is 24 or under and has a disability or lacks mental capacity. We have considered the point that the amendment makes about legal aid for those with disabilities. The equality impact assessment published alongside the Government’s response to consultation sets out our analysis of the potential effects that the reforms may have on people sharing protected characteristics in accordance with the public sector equality duty set out in the Equality Act 2010. We have acted consistently with that duty, one requirement of which is to have due regard to the impact on groups of different ages and those with different needs, such as disabilities. While we have identified the potential for the reforms to have greater impacts on some groups, we believe that those impacts are proportionate and justified by the need to meet our objectives, including the pressing need to make savings from legal aid.
They are not legally offensive. We have been honest right from the first day I answered questions. I go back again to this, which is something that the noble Lord in his many, many interventions never acknowledges. If you are making cuts in such an area that is directed at the poorer sections of society, of course, you will affect the poorer sections of society. But what will also affect the poorer sections of society is if you lose control of the economy and are forced to bring in further draconian cuts over which you have no control. We will return, as we have done, through six or seven parallel debates with the same briefings and research from the same organisations. We have a fundamental difference of opinion on how to tackle these problems. I am not even sure that the noble Lord is quite on message at least with the latest pronouncements from his Front Bench in the other place about what we are facing in these matters. I suspect that we will have further discussions on this.
The Bill contains important safeguards for children and adults who lack capacity and who require treatment for mental health issues. Paragraph 5 of Part 1 of Schedule 1 provides that legal aid may be made available for cases arising under the Mental Health Act 1983 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005, including cases concerning medical treatment of patients or those who lack capacity. Furthermore, paragraphs 9 and 15 of Part 3 of Schedule 1 provide for legal aid for advocacy for mental health cases before the mental health tribunal. Paragraph 4 provides for advocacy before the Court of Protection where there is to be an oral hearing and the case will determine the vital interests of the individual: medical treatment, including psychological treatment; life; liberty; physical safety; the capacity to marry or enter into civil partnerships; the capacity to enter into sexual relations; or the right to family life. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Part 3 of Schedule 1 provide legal aid for advocacy for an onward appeal to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court on a mental health or capacity issue that is within scope.
As I have already mentioned, there will also be an exceptional funding scheme that will ensure the protection of an individual’s right to legal aid under the European Convention on Human Rights as well as those rights to legal aid that are directly enforceable under European Union law.
Amendment 34 applies to all civil and family proceedings. It seeks to bring into scope civil legal services for many areas of law that are excluded for any child party or child represented by legal guardian. I will address the amendment on the basis that the term “legal guardian” means the child’s guardian of the type appointed by CAFCASS. We are already retaining legal aid for child parties in family proceedings which we have prioritised. This part of the amendment is therefore unnecessary. Otherwise the amendment retains funding across the board for children in all civil disputes without regard to their relative priority or alternative methods of resolving them.
As I said, the Government recognise the importance of funding in a range of cases where children’s interests are paramount. That is reflected in the final decisions we have reached. As a result, we have protected funding in areas that specifically involve children. We have also made special provision so that legal aid is available for children who are made parties to private family proceedings.
Amendments 39 and 40 concern legal aid for the measures to prevent the unlawful removal of a child within the United Kingdom and Amendment 41 to prevent removal from the child’s normal place of residence within the United Kingdom, and to take steps to remedy such removal.
We initially proposed that legal aid would remain to secure the return of a child who had been abducted overseas. We listened to consultation responses and extended this to cover prevention of abduction in such cases. This made sense on the basis of the complexity and cost and the consequential practical disadvantages involved in dealing with a foreign jurisdiction. We do not, however, consider that domestic cases raise the same difficulties as international abduction cases because the resident parent would not be dealing with a complex foreign jurisdiction.
The seek and locate orders, which are commonly employed in cases of removal of children within the jurisdiction without the other parent’s consent, are relatively straightforward to obtain and, of course, many domestic agencies, including the police, can be engaged in trying to retrieve the child without the need for proceedings in court. Furthermore, if domestic violence or child abuse is involved and becomes an additional risk factor, legal aid would then be available.
I understand that the Minister is trying to give a full response, but in his valiant reply he said that the international child abduction cases were difficult and complex and that domestic abduction cases were not. Will he think again on that issue, not least because the complexity of the issues relating to abduction is similar in both domestic and international cases? Quite often the parents are greatly distressed, very confused and in need of the quick, experienced lawyer who is able to navigate the system. Many lawyers find abduction cases difficult and international cases are not very dissimilar. Will the Minister take back to the department that the belief that domestic cases may be easier than international cases is not quite as it may think it is.
That is always the problem. If you say that one thing is more difficult it is implied that the others are easier. No, I was not implying that. I take the noble and learned Baroness’s point. One of the more difficult areas is where there is a break-up of a family and a loss of contact. I shall read what has been said and take it back.
Perhaps I may add to what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, has said. I have listened with interest to what the Minister is saying to us, but he suggested that the police would intervene even without going to court. Will he check as to whether the police are prepared to act in the absence of a court order? My experience, which is now six years out of date, was that the police were not prepared to act unless there was a court order. It would be very helpful if the Minister could find out about that very practical and basic point because it adds a great deal of force to what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, has said.
I promise the noble and learned Baroness that I shall go into the Lord Chancellor’s room tomorrow and say, “Baroness Butler-Sloss has asked me to ask you to clarify what you told me”. It is a very serious point. My briefing states that the police would help. She has made a relevant point about whether they would do so without a court order. I have never pretended that my knowledge on these matters was only six years out of date. In fact, my expertise is right up to date because I am learning all the time. I take on board what both noble and learned Baronesses have said, and I will try to explain to the Lord Chancellor that when I stand at the Dispatch Box I am facing a considerable amendment of experience and expertise which, dare I say it, he does not always face in the other place.
Amendment 41 is also open to the argument that it would extend to applications to prevent the child being moved by the parent with whom he or she resides and so put back into the scope of legal aid a very common type of family dispute. It is hard to estimate what effect this would have on our savings, but it would inevitably run into many millions of pounds. However, I will go back. As we know from other aspects of this thing about the rights of fathers—the noble and learned Baroness gave some of the horrific statistics about family break-up—we are touching a very sensitive area and I will raise these matters with my right honourable colleague.
Amendment 51 seeks to guarantee the availability of legal aid, subject to the means and merits test, for every family dispute that is not resolved by mediation. In considering the effect of this amendment, it is important to remember that both privately paying and publicly funded clients are already required to consider mediation before bringing proceedings. Given those existing requirements, it is difficult to see how this amendment would do anything other than maintain the status quo, retaining legal aid for all or most family cases. That would completely undermine our targeted approach to legal aid reform. We have to reduce expenditure on legal aid, but we also want less reliance on litigation as a means of solving problems. This amendment would do the opposite. If the fact that mediation had not resolved the parties’ differences were to become a route to legal aid, it would have the unintended consequence of discouraging people from paying more than lip service to the mediation process and reducing genuine engagement with it.
The Government’s position is clear. We believe that it is right to encourage families, where appropriate, to resolve their disputes without going to court. Accordingly, for most divorces, child contact applications or ancillary applications to divide up the family assets, legal aid will no longer be available. We want to prioritise mediation, which can be cheaper, quicker and less acrimonious than contested court proceedings. Legal aid will therefore remain available for mediation in private law family cases. We estimate that we will spend an extra £10 million on mediation, taking the total to £25 million a year.
However, we accept that mediation might not be suitable in every case, such as those involving domestic violence. Legal aid will remain available for private family cases where there is evidence of domestic violence and cases where a child is at risk of abuse. We will be turning to the matter of domestic violence on Wednesday. I want to make clear that funding for victims of domestic violence seeking a protective order will remain available as at present; that is, we will continue to provide civil legal aid where a person is applying for an order for protection against domestic violence, such as a non-molestation order or an occupation order. We will also continue to waive the financial eligibility limits in these cases. Again, the exceptional funding scheme will ensure the protection of an individual’s right to legal aid under the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the rights to legal aid that are directly enforceable under European law.
Amendment 52 is aimed at providing legal aid for any adult party in family proceedings where a child party may give oral evidence, presumably to prevent cross-examination of the child by the alleged perpetrator. I understand the concerns which the noble Baroness who moved the amendment is trying to address here, but we are seeking to ensure funding for the most vulnerable in society. We do not think that to automatically extend funding to an alleged perpetrator fits well with this. It would be a mistake to assume that the only means of protection for the prospective witness is funding representation for the prospective questioner.
The situation which the noble and learned Baroness seeks to address can already occur in the courts. Should a victim of abuse face questioning from their abuser, judges have powers and training to manage the situation, to make sure that the court’s process is not abused and that hearings at which oral evidence is given are handled sensitively. In family proceedings, for example, the court is specifically empowered to limit cross-examination—it can have questions relayed to the witness rather than asked directly—and can use video links and intervene to prevent inappropriate questioning.
That brings me to the end of that list. I am not waving a white handkerchief and making specific concessions, but I take the point made by the noble and learned Baroness in closing that this has been an array of experience and expertise that we would do well to consider, and this we will do before we bring these matters back on Report. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, who started this debate, whether she will now withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for his comments, and I am glad to hear that he will reflect further upon this very wide-ranging debate, in which the consequences of the proposed legislation have been so well articulated on all sides of the House. I am not persuaded by what the Minister has said—that it is right, necessary or proportionate that there should be a whole-scale removal of the availability of legal aid to families with dependent children, when there is such a huge range of issues of vital importance, such as basic family income.
The Government suggest that we may save £270 million, but we know already that those figures are very questionable. Careful analysis suggests that the consequences of this part of the Bill will be a much greater involvement of social services, housing authorities, welfare services, the criminal justice system, education services, and, I fear, ultimately the health service.
The Minister has not persuaded me that the drafters of this Bill have had sufficient regard to the needs of the child and of the family to which the child belongs. We may need to return to the matter on Report. For the present, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 33 withdrawn.
Amendments 34 and 35 not moved.
House adjourned at 10.42 pm.