Justice Minister Lord McNally: cutting costs in family law

Lord McNallyI couldn’t believe my eyes when I read a certain speech by Lord McNally.

Appearing at the Grange Holborn Hotel earlier this week, the Minister of State for Justice addressed the current state of the family justice system, as well as the government’s recent slashing of legal aid. Like the loyal government apparatchik he is, the Minister of course defended those cuts to the hilt.

“I recognise that there is concern over the impact that the removal from scope of private law matters will have on both individuals and the courts. But we must not lose sight of the fact that many disputes are – and have always been – settled away from the courts, often by the parties themselves, with the help of others within their communities or with the support of paid professionals such as mediators, litigators or arbitrators.”

Concerned about an unrepresented surge in litigants in person clogging up an already strained court system, just like Baroness Butler-Sloss, Sir Alan Ward and Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court? Apparently there’s nothing to worry about!

“….litigants in person have always been present in significant numbers. In around half of all private family cases at least one party does not have a lawyer with them in court. Our small claims courts work very well on the premise that legal representation is the exception rather than the norm.”

So there you have it. Lawyers are a luxury. We can all relax. But wait – not too much!

“Unfortunately, the continuing fiscal challenges we are facing mean that we need to go further.”

Even more cuts on the way then?

Lord McNally is not a lawyer  and his agenda is very clear: cutting costs.

He argues that condensing care cases down to the much discussed 26 weeks timetable  (which many people regard as unattainable for large numbers of cases anyway) “logically” means less work by lawyers. In fact it will put more pressure on them and the amount of work will probably be the same but it will be needed in shorter periods of time.

The entire thrust of the Justice Minister’s speech is cutting costs. Never mind the fact that poorer people no longer have legal representation, can no longer to instruct the solicitor of their choice and go to court. Look instead to the Sorting Out Separation app, which offers only the most basic of information. Or charity!

“I welcome the fact that, already, a progressive and diverse range of services is springing up, recognising and matching with individuals’ differing needs, and helping them resolve their problems and navigate the legal system. Some are government funded, such as the Sorting Out Separation app; others are run on a voluntary basis; and others are commercial endeavours run by entrepreneurs who realise the need to provide bite sized support or fixed cost packages to suit the needs and pockets of their clients.”

He added:

“The arrival of Co-op legal services in the family advice market provides perhaps the most significant example of new players seeking to change and innovate.”

For ‘change and innovate’ read ‘offer cut-price, lowest common denominator services and try to see off the competition’.

But wait, there’s more! How about the bit where he appeals to the legal profession to abandon their principles for the good of the children?

“The reforms that we are undertaking will only succeed if you, the professionals on the ground, help us to take forward these changes and ensure that we all work with common purpose towards the same aim – that all children, whatever their background or start in life, have the opportunity to realise their potential and to succeed…..In particular, we have a fundamental responsibility to look out for the most vulnerable children in our society. Not only to protect their welfare, but to safeguard their interests and their future.”

In other words: ‘forget about the fact that poor people no longer have access to professional legal representation – it’s still your responsibility as lawyers to look after the children. This is nothing less than moral blackmail.

Photo by English PEN  via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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6 comments

Observer - April 29, 2013 at 12:44am

This is perhaps one area where cutting costs can only be a good thing.

Over the years, I’ve seen nothing but wastage and squandering of public money that could be better spent funding positive results for children rather than protracted litigation, sexual discrimination, idiotic statements and letters, and work that any layperson Mckenzie could do for free and with a much bigger heart.

DEC - April 29, 2013 at 8:25am

Legal Aid in Private Family Law exacerbates the issues parents face and harms children.

Generally only one side has Legal Aid and with this funding can stall and drag matters out for months and years with no financial penalty for obstinacy and recalcitrance e.g. A mother with her Legal Aid can with her ‘champion’ taxpayer funded lawyer delay a resolution for years without any sanction – It happens in every court in the land frequently.

The courts are moving to an inquisitorial system rather than keeping the destructive and appalling adversarial system we have presently which damages so many children’s lives.

Judges are well able to manage LIPs and without the lawyers stalling situations and causing huge delays with box ticking and unnecessary bureaucracy as well as the lawyers benefiting financially from the delays.

The perverse anti-children adversarial system in place presently should be consigned to the dustbin and many will welcome the new inquisitorial system that is coming into place, without the taxpayer funded lawyers who simply find more obstacles to put into place to hinder a resolution to a case.

DEC - April 29, 2013 at 9:12am

Not allowing dissenters to your view of the world, to comment on your blog says a great deal as well as being rather sad.

Yvie - April 29, 2013 at 4:40pm

Not all family lawyers are confrontational, but there are plenty who are. There should be no place for them in Family Law.

Lukey - May 1, 2013 at 12:25am

“Generally only one side has Legal Aid and with this funding can stall and drag matters out for months and years with no financial penalty for obstinacy and recalcitrance”
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I agree with this, things MUST change because currently the only people who can afford to go to court are the very poor and the very rich – the current system is horribly unfair to most of the general public and this is why the complaints by lawyers of government cost cutting has little support from the people.

JamesB - May 2, 2013 at 1:10pm

Agree with that Lukey. You can go as a LIP and get laughed at and lose as I did any many others do as an alternative I suppose. I didn’t enjoy the experience much though I must admit and think your last post is about right about the lack of support from the people for lawyers.

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