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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid: Family and Domestic Abuse) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2023

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid: Family and Domestic Abuse) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2023.

My Lords, this statutory instrument will, again, expand the civil legal aid scheme, this time making civil legal aid available in two new areas of family law and in certain domestic abuse proceedings. The instrument also makes a change of a technical nature to the means and merits test in certain family cases, and as regards the evidence requirements for victims of domestic abuse as a result of new areas being brought into scope of the civil legal aid scheme.

In outline, there are four topics covered by the order. The first is special guardianship orders, under new paragraph 1A inserted by Article 4(2). A special guardianship order is a court order that allows parental control over a child by individuals other than the parent—for example, a long-term foster carer or grandparent. Currently, SGOs, as they are known, in private family proceedings are not within the scope of civil legal aid. The primary purpose of this instrument is to bring SGOs in private family law proceedings within the scope of the legal aid scheme. That is its first change.

Secondly, Article 4(3) of the statutory instrument will expand the availability of civil and criminal legal aid to reflect new protective orders and notices introduced by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. A domestic abuse protection notice or a domestic abuse protection order will effectively replace, and is wider than, the existing non-molestation orders—which are known as “non-mols”. Those orders will, for example, include the ability to order a tagging order or to attend a change of behaviour programme. They have various other more flexible provisions that supersede the current regime of non-molestation orders. Those new orders will be piloted nationally in the near future. There is currently no existing provision for legal aid for such orders, so this instrument introduces legal aid for them.

Thirdly, the instrument amends the means and merits tests for parents contesting a placement and/or adoption order. Currently, the means and merits tests differ depending on whether a placement or adoption order is sought within care proceedings or not. It is a simple inconsistency in the regulations and this small amendment brings the situation under one umbrella to allow those who are at risk of having their child permanently removed to be legally represented, regardless of whether the order is sought within care proceedings. This is a technical change in the instrument to rectify that unintentional difference.

Fourthly and finally, with Article 7(3)(b) we are updating the evidence requirements for victims of domestic abuse. One of the types of evidence that a victim of domestic abuse can provide is a letter from their medical practitioner after they have had a face-to-face appointment. This instrument will also allow medical practitioners to provide a letter as evidence of domestic abuse after a telephone or videoconferencing appointment. That provision will be reviewed after a year to make sure that it is working in practice and has not had any unintended effects. That is the outline scope of this statutory instrument.

My Lords, I apologise; I appreciated only this afternoon that this SI was being tabled for discussion today. I want to make reference to extending legal aid to special guardianship order applications for children in private law proceedings. Clearly, this is welcome but, regrettably, it is not matched in public law proceedings, where the majority of special guardianship orders are pursued, when children are often in a crisis situation. In effect, the SI will not cover all kinship carer situations, where legal support is needed and is further limited by the stringent means test.

The compelling evidence—and this has often been rehearsed on the Floor of the Chamber—is that kinship carers are left to navigate the family justice system without the legal aid and representation they need. Many incur significant debt from paying legal costs or find themselves sidelined in important decisions about the child, directly increasing the risk that more children will end up in care.

There are two key areas in public law cases where legal aid for prospective special guardians urgently needs to be considered. First, at the formal pre-proceedings stage, prospective kinship carers have access to only limited advice. Means-tested support is remunerated at such low rates that very few solicitors will now offer advice on taking on the care of a child. Secondly, during the care proceedings, prospective kinship carers are still entitled to only very limited advice. In fact, only when the prospective kinship carer is made party to the court proceedings or when they make a private law application may they be entitled to legal aid. We know from the evidence, which has been rehearsed many times in the Chamber, that many carers do not have the early advice even to know that becoming a party to proceedings is an option or how to make a private law application.

In putting those issues, my main point is that, while welcoming the extension of legal aid in the instance covered by this SI, in preparing their response to the MacAlister review, are the Government considering further extending access to legal aid to kinship carers seeking guardianship orders in public law situations? We know that the evidence is overwhelming that, in terms of the benefits to the child and the cost to the taxpayer, effective kinship carer situations with guardianship orders save the taxpayer money, give better outcomes for the child and will, in effect, end up paying many times over for the extension of legal aid that these people seek.

My Lords, I shall be very quick, not least because the chairman of the committee mentioned by the Minister in his answer on the previous instrument is in her place, and she can talk with much more skill and expertise than I can. As a mere member of that committee, I remember well the Minister’s appearance before it; I do not think that it is flattering him too much to say that he was one of the star witnesses, not just on that day but during the whole of our proceedings. Indeed, the whole issue about early advice, as was clear from the Minister’s first reply, was clearly something that was a matter of concern to him.

Just as I supported the last instrument, I support this one. Again, in their comparatively small way, they are important improvements. One fault of LASPO, to put it mildly, was that too much of private family law was taken out of scope of legal aid. There have been consequences since, and my guess is that the Government have come round to that view and I think that this order, in a small way, shows that. The Minister will know that the issue around domestic violence and the evidence needed was a matter of huge controversy for many years after LASPO came into force. It looks as if that is, finally, I hope, being put to bed.

All that I want to do, if I may—and I certainly do not want to take the thunder away from the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who I hope will speak shortly—is to invite the Minister, if he has not already, to see the recommendations that we made in this area of the Select Committee’s report. We ended by saying, as one of our major recommendations:

“We recommend that the Government urgently evaluate the impact of the removal of legal aid for most private family law cases, considering where reinstating legal aid could help improve the efficiency and quality of the family justice system.”

We heard a huge amount of evidence over the months that showed that the lack of the possibility of legal aid in some private family law situations was very harmful to their early solving.

My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity to say a few words in support of this order. As was said about the previous instrument, this is a small but significant step forward in an area that has been beset with many difficulties. On the specific points about the recommendation to extend the order to cover special guardianship orders in private law proceedings, I agree that that is important.

One of the very interesting findings of the Select Committee, which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has already referred to, was that there are now more special guardianship orders per year than there are children being adopted. That makes the whole area of special guardianship orders very important. While it is good news that they will be in scope of this instrument on private law proceedings, I very much echo the important remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about how desirable it would be for that to be extended to public law proceedings.

I will just make a couple of other general comments on the work that the Select Committee did to look into family law and the family justice system. First, I very much underline and endorse the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, made about the very helpful evidence that the noble and learned Lord the Minister gave to the committee, which really informed the recommendations that we made throughout the chapter on family justice and particularly on legal aid itself. The point has come up several times this afternoon that one difficulty that the family courts face at the moment—and some of the reasons for the big backlog and delays—is the lack of any focus on early intervention.

Other witnesses before the committee included the current President of the Family Division and his immediate predecessor. His predecessor, Sir James Munby, argued—and we put in our report—that

“Money properly spent at an early stage usually pays dividends later on.”

I very much agree with that. Sir Andrew McFarlane, the current President of the Family Division, also made a number of comments on the importance of reinstating some legal aid within family law proceedings and came up with a number of ideas that are in the report, including the idea of some form of professional who might be able to signpost applicants to mediation, to other forms of information about dispute resolution or to a lawyer, where that would be helpful.

I know that that goes wider than this particular statutory instrument, but we also heard from academic experts who really underlined the problems that the cuts to legal aid had made in the family courts and, frankly, how they had simply shifted costs to other parts of the court system, particularly where litigants in person, quite understandably, did not really understand how to represent themselves. It was taking up so much time from the court service officials and others, and another academic expert said to us that

“there are cases going to court that lawyers would have headed off. With legal aid, a lawyer would have said, ‘No, it’s not worth taking this to court’ or ‘Try mediation’”,

or, “No, you’ll lose”.

They are such important points and that is why we ended up, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has already said, recommending that the Government should urgently evaluate the impact of the removal of legal aid for most private family law cases and consider reinstating legal aid where that can improve the efficiency and quality of the family justice system. I was extremely encouraged when I heard the Minister’s remarks in the previous debate when he said—I think; I would be pleased if he could confirm it—that the Government are looking again at this whole area to see what impact reinstating legal aid in certain instances in the family courts would have. Just to underline that final point, the Select Committee thought that it would really improve efficiency, effectiveness and the quality of outcomes in the family justice system.

As I say, I support this statutory instrument. It is a small but important step forward and I hope that it also leads to consideration of wider improvements in the family justice system.

My Lords, I too welcome this SI. I declare that I sit as a family magistrate in London and I am currently chairman of the Greater London Family Panel, which means that I represent about 300 family magistrates within Greater London.

A very concentrated amount of expertise has been displayed in this short debate. I have to say my noble friend Lord Bach was really quite shameless in his flattery of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, no doubt trying to get him to go further along the lines of these SIs, because we are, of course, all pushing in the same direction.

My noble friend Lady Drake spoke about the importance of kinship care. She gave the example of public law and private law special guardianship orders and explained how they are playing an ever-greater part in the type of disposals we deal with in family courts. It is very interesting for me, with my magistrate’s hat on, to see how different local authorities access SGOs and how they vary across the country as well as across London. It is good that, in that aspect of the SI, there is some more money available for legal aid support for people going for special guardianship orders.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who of course has real expertise in this matter, not least because she was a previous chairman of Cafcass, spoke about the importance of early intervention. I know the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, is also very keen on early intervention. It needs to be funded and co-ordinated. I know that both Sir James Munby and the current president, Sir Andrew McFarlane, are very keen to try to divert as many cases—particularly private law cases—away from family court as is practical.

It has to be said that about 80% of the private law cases we see in family court have domestic abuse allegations. If you make that allegation, it is not suitable for mediation and, depending on how serious the allegation is, it can make for a much more protracted court procedure. It is a difficult thing to do, but trying to move the cases is the right direction, if I can put it like that.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, also spoke about expanding legal aid for domestic abuse protection orders—of course, we are now in the criminal sphere—and how these types of orders may in some ways replace other types of interventionist orders, in both the family and the criminal courts: non-molestation orders in the family court, and restraining orders in the criminal court. When he gave his examples, he talked about tagging and various interventions for people who are potentially going to be put on domestic abuse prevention orders, but I am not clear whether there is any legal aid for advice for people who are potentially subject to those orders.

I say this because of one case that I dealt with remotely. It was an application for a domestic abuse protection notice, and there was no defence lawyer. The prosecuting lawyer, who was actually a part-time judge, advised that we as a court should put in place a domestic abuse prevention order, with no findings made by the court. As I chaired that session, I felt duty-bound to say to the defendant that, if that were put in place and he were to break it, there would be a criminal conviction. He pointed out to me that, by profession, he was a primary school teacher and the very fact of this order being put in place, with no findings of guilt, was enough for him to have to tell his head teacher. Who knows what would have happened to his career in that light. So that young man needed proper advice, and, in the end, I, as a magistrate, gave him it, not the other lawyer in that case. I am not sure that that was appropriate, and I could see how that scenario could easily have gone wrong if the young man had not received appropriate advice.

Nevertheless, as I said, we welcome this SI, which pushes in the right direction. I look forward to similar SIs in the future.

My Lords, I warmly thank noble Lords for their various interventions and points. I will take back the last point from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on domestic protection orders and have a look at it. We understand that legal aid is available for advice on domestic abuse protection orders. Whether the gentleman in question would have qualified for legal aid may be another matter, if he was a teacher. There may be an issue here, and I will explore this a little further to make sure that we are covered on that kind of point.

On the wider issue, I hear with interest and sympathy the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, on legal aid for special guardianship orders in public law proceedings, particularly early advice for kinship carers. That will be a feature, among many others, of the review of civil legal aid generally that we are about to embark on. I am afraid that flattery, which is completely undeserved in this context, is one of the things that does not move the Government, particularly the Treasury, in any direction, so, as your Lordships pointed out, we are taking small steps and coming at various issues perhaps somewhat obliquely and in sequence, with a view to tackling problems as best we can as they arise. We will continue to try to address gaps of the kind that the noble Baroness identified. The Government are very happy to have gaps pointed out to them so that consideration can be given to those matters. Clearly, special guardianship is very important; whatever you may think of the pros and cons of the apparent decline in adoption, there is no doubt that special guardianship has assumed a greater importance. We need to reflect that in our underlying structures.

Family law generally is perhaps slightly outside our discussion today, but this Room is so brimming with expertise on the subject, particularly the experience of the noble Lords who sat on the Select Committee we discussed, and of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who is one of the most experienced magistrates in this area one could hope to meet.

We need to address a whole range of interconnected issues: signposting, so that people know early on where they can get help; early advice; how you manage dispute resolution and the best means of it, bearing in mind the committee of this House’s comment that mediation may not always be the best solution, as there may be other possibilities. We need to think of the difficulties facing local authorities and those facing Cafcass. There is a huge mosaic of matters that we need to think about. I am not in a position today to make any promises on behalf of the Government, but I can assure noble Lords that these matters are on the radar and that we will take them forward as best we can and as soon as we can.

Motion agreed.