It may not have been given too much attention in the national media, but legal aid will soon be changing drastically due to the implementation of The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
From the 31st January 2013, firms which deal with civil matters under Legal Aid schemes will be forced to drastically reduce the amount of Legal Aid cases they can take on, specifically matters on divorce, children, including contact and residence (formerly known as access and custody), co-habitation and other family issues. From April this will be reduced again.
The final rules have not yet been published, but it is likely that nobody, regardless of income or benefit status, will be able to claim Legal Aid for any matrimonial or family matters. Legal Aid may still be available, however, if the case falls in the public law domain (such as adoption or when children are taken into care),if there have been allegations of domestic violence or harm to the children.
These cuts have been heavily criticised in the media, by the courts and by the House of Lords, but the government seems set on them going ahead.
Many feel that the cuts will expose the most vulnerable people to even greater risk. A recent report by an Independent Commission of Inquiry into legal aid on the proposed changes said that those at the greatest risk include the elderly, the disabled, the abused, children and the mentally ill. The changes will mean that those people may no longer be able to enforce their rights.
There are also concerns that this may lead to an increase of people acting for themselves at court, which will cause the court system to clog up with cases which could be dealt with relatively simply, creating a back-log and increasing time and costs. Further, there is a belief by some that the requirement of an element of domestic violence will lead to an increase in false claims of domestic violence, causing difficulty for the police and for solicitors’ firms, as well as undermining the plight of those who are genuinely in danger.
In response to the cuts, some firms are taking new steps in an effort to prepare people for the changes.
At Hartley & Worstenholme, for example, we now have free legal drop-in clinics. At our Pontefract office our clinic deals with matrimonial and family matters and is open from 4.30pm-6.30 pm every Wednesday. At our Castleford office, we offer advice for family and litigation matters (including personal injury) on every Tuesday evening from 4.30pm-6.30pm. The clinics allow people to come for free initial advice, and allows us to explain the action that needs to be taken without people feeling pressured.
We are still here to help, but if you have a matter and need the assistance of Legal Aid, we urge you to not delay, make an appointment to see someone as soon as possible. At Hartley & Worstenholme we are ready and willing to take your matter on, to ensure that you get the best result possible.
For up to date information on this developing issue please keep an eye on our website.
Telephone: 01977 732222