An evening at All Souls College, Oxford – and why I agree with Baroness Deech about legal aid
It was a magnificent setting, inside and out. We gathered in the Old Library: a treasure trove. Grinling Gibbons, the great wood carver, made considerable contributions to All Souls and I suspect that the magnificent “thrones” – the hand-carved wooden chairs on which our speakers were seated – were made by him.
The speakers included three baronesses: Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former President of the Family Division andBaroness Deech, both of whom sit as crossbench peers in the House of Lords; also Baroness Hale, who sits as a Supreme Court judge. Professor Sanford Katz was present to give an American perspective. Rebecca Probert chaired; her co-editor, Professor Chris Barton, modestly stayed in the background. It was a pleasant atmosphere. There was little by way of debate, but plenty of informed comment. Pre-selected academic members of the audience asked questions about family law, and the topics were old favourites.
On this blog we regularly discuss shared parenting, rights of access to the courts, the impact of increasing numbers of litigants in person on the court system, the role of the Supreme Court and the fate of legal aid. So did the panellists – but with a marked difference. My clients and readers have personal experience of these subjects. The panellists were speaking from their experiences as distinguished and learned academics or senior judges, whose contact with large numbers of people over relatively long periods of time is, I suspect, rather more limited.
As a family lawyer, my day-to-day work brings me into contact with many people whose cases are unlikely to go anywhere near the Court of Appeal, much less the Supreme Court. I remain far from convinced that people at the top of the system appreciate that the troublemakers and their views are a tiny fraction who give everyone else a bad name.
So what was said?
On shared parenting there was swift, general consensus around the entire room that there should be no change to the law, because the interests of the child are paramount and the waters mustn’t be muddied. So I was in the minority, because I would welcome a change to the welfare checklist for parents. I would prefer the law to become more akin to the Scottish system, which puts the child’s welfare first but also recognises the parent’s rights to parent that child. Parents in England and Wales do not enjoy these rights at present.
Then the discussion turned to the future of family law, legal aid and reduced access to the courts.
Lord Pannick, Lady Butler-Sloss, Lady Deech and others have been valiantly trying to save legal aid for family law. The Lords inflicted 11 defeats on the Government when they sent the legal aid bill back to the Commons. This week the Lords have been debating it all again, in a game of parliamentary ping pong. The Government is reportedly keen for Parliament to approve the legislation before the end of the current session, and the MPs had overturned all the Lords’ changes – only to have a further three defeats inflicted upon them by the Lords yesterday. The ping pong continues, but I fear that legal aid is now all but lost to family law and it is a terrible day for the country.
Afterwards at the reception – held in the Codrington Library, with its beautiful coffered ceiling and high, tiered bookcases – I found that this view was not shared by everyone. I spoke to one All Souls fellow, who was formerly with the Treasury.
In clipped tones, he told me that the abolition of family legal aid had been on the cards “for years”, and about time too. Legal aid had to go, he said. There were people who couldn’t afford access to dental treatment – why should access to law be any different? Listening to his opinion, I gathered that the poor would have to make do!
So should access to justice be the preserve of those with access to money? Their Ladyships didn’t seem to think so, and spoke movingly about their concerns as to what lies round the corner. They clearly care a great deal about the profound impact that the cuts will have on the courts and on the poor, the vulnerable and the weak. They expressed their concerns for the judiciary, which will have to cope with large numbers of such cases.
I thought about Mr Justice Ryder who wasn’t mentioned. Charged with overhauling the family justice system, he must determine how best to gear the courts for change - and handle the expected mass of bewildered litigants-in-person (LIPs). Just last week, all solicitors received a directive from the Law Society regarding the appropriate treatment of LIPs. And I predict the outcome of dealing with their increased numbers even now: Adam Sampson, the Legal Ombudsman is going to be swamped. Sanford Katz confirmed that in America, this has been a significant and ongoing problem for many years.
Lady Deech queried why £10 billion have been invested in the Olympics, a two-week wonder. She said that she had a bee in her bonnet about it. Just a fraction of those monies, she pointed out, would have saved legal aid.
I could have hugged her! As regular readers may recall, I have disagreed with Lady Deech’s views in the past. However everything Lady Deech has to say about legal aid, and the efforts being made by the House of Lords to try and save legal aid, are praiseworthy indeed. Ironic, isn’t it, which House of Parliament is for abolishing legal aid and which is for saving it?
Lady Hale wanted to know what was wrong with people wanting to go to court? She made a very fair point. A court administers justice between disputing parties, and people are entitled to justice. Why dissuade them?
The government is doing all it can to turn people away from going to court. Reading the papers this weekend, I think the media have (finally!) cottoned on to what is happening and the scale and size of what is to come. What a shame that this blaze of publicity is coming too late. Even if concessions are made for victims of domestic violence, there will still be hundreds of thousands of people unable to get proper access to justice. Thousands of lawyers will lose their livelihoods. I don’t expect sympathy but there should be, because these are the skilled lawyers who have never sought big fees and who serve the public working at tradesman’s rates. And what’s wrong with that?
When I began practising I could never have imagined that family law legal aid would be abolished. I was so pleased to hear what Lady Deech, who came across as thoroughly decent and caring, had to say. And afterwards at the reception, I told her so! It appears that she reads this blog, so in my blunt Yorkshire way:
Well done Lady Deech! Please keep up your excellent work for all those who are most in need of help, and for the preservation of a legal system that was once the envy of the world.
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Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner in Stowe Family Law, which has offices in Yorkshire, Cheshire and London. With more than 30 years’ experience handling divorce cases and family law proceedings she is regarded as one of the most formidable and sought after divorce lawyers in the UK. In 2012, Marilyn became one of the first solicitors to qualify as a family law arbitrator.
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