Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, has published proposals to give divorced and separated fathers stronger rights to see their children as part of an overhaul of the family justice system.
On the surface this sounds great. Having a family member who has had to fight to get access to his child i understand what terrible heart breaking cases for all involved. Those of us who know the MOJ understand clearly that the announcement is a misleading smokescreen from the huge damage the legal aid bill and cuts will have on all our children in the UK.
Clarke told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday: "We want to put back confidence that the courts will have proper regard to the position of fathers and the right of the child to have contact with the father, but of course in the end the interests of the child must be uppermost and it isn't always possible." The sentiment is good but this is so far from what this government of liberals and conservatives are doing to children in this country.
Last week, Minister of Justice Jonathan Djanogly made big of the fact he is providing an extra £10 million for mediation to deal with the fact that when parents separate too many children lose contact with parent with whom they are not living.
What Djanolgy and Clarke have failed to explain is that this is not new money to help with this problem. It is money that the government expects to be required to spend as a result of axing legal aid for parents seeking a contact order because they have lost, or are at risk of losing, contact with their children.
The government impact assessment indicates that 200,000 people will no longer get legal advice and assistance with family breakdown in the future, including around 44,000 parents who need representation in Court to deal with disputes about their children.
The government estimates that its cuts to legal aid will result in just 3,000 to 10,000 additional mediations, and it is this extra burden that the £10 million is set to address. However, many respected commentators, including the Justice Select Committee and Professor Graham Cookson at Kings College, view that figure as a gross underestimate of the likely impact of the cuts.
Djanogly said "There is a familiar picture in the UK of parental separation leading to thousands of children losing meaningful contact with the non-resident parent - usually the father. It is right that we consider all the options to help ensure that children can continue to have an ongoing relationship with both their parents after separation."
At this stage in the debate the Minister Djanogly and the MOJ figures he uses on legal aid and children's cases have been completely discredited. On the 23 January Summa Sir Suma Chakrabarti KCB, Permanent Secretary, admitted to Margaret Hodge MP and the Public Accounts Committee that they will not have their 2009/2010 accounts ready until 2015. So the fact is Jonathan Djanogly simply does not know what he is cutting and the number of children's lives and families he will impact. It is impossible for the minister to talk accurately about any savings or indeed help for victims when he does not know what is going on in his own department.
The hollowness of the Clarke and Djanogly offer to help children is clear when the Ministry of Justice has acknowledge, in answers to Parliamentary questions on knock on costs, that they don't know the full costs and benefits because they can't predict how people will behave after the cuts. Last week there was a telling passage in answer that Liberal Democrat Justice Minister Lord McNally gave to Lord Beecham
Lord Beecham: To ask Her Majesty's government what estimate they have made of the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on the budget of each government department; and whether those estimates have been agreed by each relevant department.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): The impact assessment published alongside the response to consultation lays out our best estimates of the costs and benefits associated with the reform programme. Systemic costs, including those arising for other government departments, were considered as part of both the policy development and clearance processes during which extensive engagement with other government departments was conducted. Ultimately, any costs arising will be determined by behavioural responses to the changes, which cannot be predicted with certainty. We will be conducting a post-implementation review of the reforms three to five years after Royal Assent, and this will consider the question of systemic impacts of the reforms.
When all this evidence is put together if becomes clear that the Clarke and Djanogly offer of support and the governments announcement is simply a diversion from the real crisis that is about to hit families and children in the UK, and separating families worse than most. Over the last two weeks peers from all sides have condemned the governments cuts to children and families. This £10 million pounds is a derisory figure to deal with the problems this section of society faces.
Children will be badly affected by the changes in other ways too. Figures from the Sound off for Justice report 'Not Seen and Not Heard' report reveal the government's planned legal aid cuts will remove direct free legal aid advice and support services for 6,000 under 18 year olds and 69,000 young Britons aged between 18-24 who want to resolve issues relating to employment, education,homelessness, welfare and debt. In addition, tens of thousands of children will be affected when their parents lose access to legal aid.
The report's figures also highlight how an additional 140,000 children will be affected by legal aid support being removed for their parents. 68,000 will be affected by family contact and finance disputes, whilst another 36,700 will be impacted by legal aid being removed for welfare benefit cases. In addition,thousands more children will be adversely affected by the removal or reduction in the scope of legal aid for other categories such as education, clinical negligence and housing.
Last September Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children's Commissioner for England said: "The proposed changes to legal aid will significantly disadvantage tens of thousands of children and young people who will be left to fight legal problems without proper professional representation. This will include children who suffer an injury, children with special educational needs or subject to deportation or those facing problems with employment or welfare benefits. These are just some of the many children and young people who seek assistance or support through legal aid to help them with a problem that requires a legal resolution. "We have raised our concerns with the Ministry of Justice about the impact of the proposed changes to legal aid on children's lives. The removal of legal aid will mean that these children are left to navigate alone a legal system that is designed for adults. Denying them professional representation is a denial of justice. All children must be helped to have their voice heard in accordance with Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UK government is a signatory to the Convention, therefore any proposals to reform the legal aid system should take account of the child's perspective in compliance with theConvention."
Sound off for Justice have been campaigning with an alternative to the governments cuts in legal aid which will impact 2.3 million women, children and families across the UK.
We believe that reducing funding to legal aid generally by an arbitrary sum will not change the percentage of abuse or waste within the legal aid system. Cutting legal aid for women who are being beaten by their abusive partners does not take them further away from being murdered. It does not stop the beating. Cutting legal aid from a child that is witnessing daily violence and poverty does not stop the child growing up angry and turning into a criminal. Cutting legal aid from a child that has brain damage at birth at the hands of a bad doctor or nurse does not make that life better. Cutting legal aid for housing benefit mistakes does not stop families being made homeless as a result of the inevitable rent arrears.
Only with increased activity and analysis on quality control can waste (and therefore cost) be reduced in a meaningful way, and thus savings made which will not hit the vulnerable, whom legal aid is designed to protect. Cuts which may actually increase the deficit should be avoided, rather targeted areas of potential savings should be studied and acted upon giving a more efficient system and a real contribution to the deficit reduction target.
The reality is that Clarke and Djanogly are offering £10 million to children while their cuts in legal aid will impact:
- 6,000 children under 18, and 69,000 Britons aged between 18-24 years of age, will no longer be able to access free legal advice and support for cases involving employment, homelessness and welfare under government plans
- 36% of those classified as homeless in the most recent figures were aged between 16 and 24.
- 21% of people aged between 16-24 years of age are unemployed
- 55% of 16 - 24 year olds who have recently been arrested have reported experiencing at least one 'difficult' to solve civil justice problem
- Connexions advice and support services for 13-19 year olds are being cut by 40%
- 45,000 young Britons will lose access to voluntary sector youth advice services
- 68,000 children will be affected by legal aid being removed for family contact and finance disputes
- 36,000 children will be affected by legal aid being removed for welfare benefit cases
- The Law Centres Federation estimates the government's planned legal aid cuts could result in 18 of the 56 UK Law Centres closing
Follow Jonny Mulligan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jmulligan