The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, that came into effect in April has caused the deepest cuts to legal aid since the scheme first began. As a consequence of this, thousands of people are now unable to access legal advice and representation.
By virtue of the cuts, the £2.2billion legal aid bill has been reduced by £350million and the consequences will be felt country-wide. However the shrinking and virtual disappearance of legal aid will have a considerable impact on the legal landscape and the final cost to the government may well exceed this relatively modest reduction.
With legal aid no longer being available for most family cases we are likely to see a dramatic increase in the number of people making their own applications to court. Cases will now take longer and it is unlikely that they will obtain the same outcome without legal representation. In circumstances where a person making their own application is faced with their opponent who is legal represented, there is unlikely to be a fair trial.
The Government insists that there are alternatives to having the court resolve family disputes and have announced an additional £10 million funding for mediation. However mediation is not a panacea and should be a voluntary process for people who wish to seek an alternative way to resolving their disputes, not because they are coerced to do so by the Government.
These changes to the legal aid system, I believe, will have far reaching repercussions, the impact of which will be felt in years to come. There will of course be people that will engage in legal means to resolve their disputes, be it by mediation or by making a DIY application to the Court, if they are unable to afford to pay for a solicitor. However by effectively denying people advice and legal representation in the management of their disputes, there will be those who are so determined and desperate, that they may be tempted to settle matters for themselves whether or not it involves them in breaking the law. Consequently we may see an increase in violence between former partners, with the devastating consequences for family life and particularly for the children witnessing or hearing domestic abuse.
There is no doubt that a growth of litigants in person will also put a great strain on a court system which is already creaking from the weight of cases it processes on a daily basis. There will be even longer delays in resolving issues, which is not in anyone's interests, least of all for the children involved. Judges are likely to become frustrated trying to manage cases with unrepresented warring parties with no lawyers to call on for assistance with case management. In the end the process could cost the government more money than it tried to save in the first place with the legal aid cuts.
Those that choose to make DIY court applications have various ways of doing it. Many solicitors firms are now offering fixed price packages for assisting with the making of the initial application to court; consultancy packages are also being offered to provide support for litigants in person if and when they wish to access further legal advice. In this way people may only consult a solicitor when they need help with a particular aspect of the case, thereby ensuring a more effective control on their legal expenses.
There has been proliferation of DIY online sites for divorce applications over the last twelve months too. While these sites can be very helpful for a litigant in person and also save them a lot of money, some are misleading in that they infer that a divorce can be available for less than £50. Bearing in mind the issue fee for a divorce petition is £340 (unless the person making the application is exempt from paying the Court fee), obtaining a divorce is never going to be that cheap. Also although many of the websites provide comprehensive information, applicants need to make sure they only use websites where the information has been provided by family law experts such as Divorce Depot so that the information is both reliable and accurate.
So are DIY divorce sites the legal future? There are undoubtedly many benefits to them, they provide the public with discreet and confidential advice as and when they wish to access it with much lower costs than face to face advice from a solicitor. However they aren't an entire substitute for the gaping hole the legal aid cuts have left. There are still times when sitting down when appointing a solicitor is the only way forward but that is undoubtedly the most costly for your average Brit than any other option.
With the demise of legal aid, an alternative means of obtaining legal advice and assistance has arrived with a substantial saving in cost, this could mean a fundamental change in how the public consult a solicitor in the future.