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Death by a Thousand Legal Aid Cuts

Recent months have seen the unlikely scenario of lawyers protesting outside parliament. Some wearing their gowns and wigs. Not even Shakespeare with his comic eye for the implausible could have predicted this! Their cause? The recent cuts to family legal aid. The protest is not only about the unfairness of a system which illogically reduces the amount of money available to those involved in family disputes, but also the craziness of reducing their access to justice. For example to show eligibility to obtain legal aid for a domestic violence injunction some victims have to obtain a letter from their GP which typically costs £50. This is not an inconsiderable sum when restricted finances are often part of an abuser’s weaponry.

Apart from causing chaos in the finances of law firms, solicitors and barristers, the cuts are also massively impacting upon the family law courts. The dire warnings of delays, injustice and unnecessary expense have already come to fruition in my experience.

Recently I was involved in a case where the applicant father was representing himself. I represented the mother, a victim of serious domestic violence, whose husband had shown his ‘deep love’ for her by breaking her nose, her jaw and her wrist in 3 separate incidents. He now sought ‘custody’ of the four children aged between 4 and 12. Had he been represented the case would have lasted for half a day at the most (probably less). Sensible questions would have been put directly by his lawyer to my client and the magistrates would have made a sensible decision based upon sensible legal submissions by the lawyers. Instead the proceedings took 2 days, during which my client had to re-experience the domestic abuse that she had only recently escaped from. His cross examination of her, although not direct, was pointless and nonetheless traumatic. If she had had to represent herself the proceedings would have lasted twice as long as it did. That could become a reality in the near future, if the Government takes things to their logical conclusion.

An article in the Guardian has poignantly pointed out that ‘many men and women with literacy problems were [already] attempting to negotiate complex legal processes without representation.’ It’s true.

In my above-mentioned case the applicant father proudly relied on a certificate which displayed his successful completion of an anger management course. If he had had a solicitor, she would have explained to him that domestic violence has nothing to do with anger but everything to do with control. It wasn’t merely that he was angry when he punched her in the face and broke her jaw, or slammed her into the wall and broke her nose, or stood on her hand and broke her wrist. The real problem was his perceived loss of the ability to control her. In the 2 decades or so since he married her, she had gradually come to realise that she had an independent will, a separate life from him and that she really could make her own choices.

Unfortunately the legal aid cuts are likely to have the cruel effect of leaving victims of domestic violence without the choice of true, quick and accessible justice.

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