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Categorized | Civil Law, Legal Aid

In-court advice centres

In-court advice centres

One of the many malign effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) was to put paid to the Citizen Advice Bureaux and other legal advice sources. The Act swept away entitlement to state-funded legal advice in family, employment, housing and welfare benefits, clinical negligence, immigration, education and other common civil legal cases.

As a direct result the family courts system is at breaking point due to delays caused by unrepresented litigants and overstretched judges. There has been a surge in the number of “litigants in person” – those who do not have lawyers to argue on their behalf. As many as 650,000 people have been deprived of support by changes to legal aid.

Cuts to legal aid have left litigants in person to navigate their own way through the courts. The MoJ were warned before the cuts were introduced that if you remove solicitors and Citizens Advice Bureaux from the equation, you remove the key source of referrals into mediation. The cuts came just as the bewildering and savage reorganisation of welfare benefits was incompetently introduced.

And now comes the announcement of a network of in-court advice centres providing support for unrepresented litigants in civil and family law cases, to be funded by the Ministry of Justice and expanded to cover the whole country. The initiative, launched by family justice minister Simon Hughes, is aimed at helping those no longer entitled to legal aid to negotiate their way through divorce proceedings and other complex claims.

Money provided by the Ministry of Justice will fund the initiative, including the Personal Support Unit, which already assists more than 1,200 litigants a month in eight units across England and Wales. The MoJ will provide £600,000 to fund the set-up costs and a further £1.4m a year thereafter.

Advisers for the new service will use court premises and are expected to come from a variety of backgrounds: law graduates, those still studying and retired people with professional backgrounds. Working with Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, a telephone and online advice service will be provided to help steer claimants in the right direction. Law schools at universities are increasingly taking up what is known as ‘clinical legal education’, encouraging students to help, under supervision, those who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

Is this enough? Hardly. Jo Edwards, the newly appointed chair of family mediation organisation Resolution, said the new support amounted to a ‘sticking plaster’ for a family justice system wounded by cuts to legal aid. “£1.4m or around £10,000 per court is hardly a substitute for the £350m cut from civil legal aid.”

Marilyn Stowe of Stowe Family Law blogged: “Quite frankly, the whole thing is a recipe for pandemonium…Mr Hughes’ solution is a network of advice centres which will be staffed by student volunteers. How is that helpful? What skills or experience do young graduates have in law, negotiation, practice and procedure?

“Students are in no position to give legal advice,” she writes. “This is especially true in divorce cases. What kind of reassurance will they be able to offer sometimes much more mature adults who are going through one of the most traumatic periods in their life? I wonder if Mr Hughes has considered what impact this will have on the volunteers.”

She is by no means alone when she concludes: “How much damage will they allow before they admit they’re wrong?”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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