Family Justice Minister’s ‘plan’ for litigants in person is a recipe for pandemonium

Simon Hughes MP

Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced a national rollout of in-court advice centres designed to help people who do not have legal representation.

So far, so good, but the solution is a disaster. Not only will it not help, I think it has the potential to make things so much worse.

Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) was passed last year, legal aid for private family law cases has all but disappeared. The idea was to encourage more people to resolve their disputes outside of the courts but, in practice, it has caused a significant rise in the number of litigants in person.

Mr Hughes’ solution is a network of advice centres which will be staffed by student volunteers. How is that helpful? What skills or experience do young graduates have in law, negotiation, practice and procedure?

Students are in no position to give legal advice. This is especially true in divorce cases. What kind of reassurance will they be able to offer sometimes much more mature adults who are going through one of the most traumatic periods in their life?

I wonder if Mr Hughes has considered what impact this will this have on the volunteers. Are they really equipped to deal with the kinds of emotional outbursts that are common in these kinds of cases?

Quite frankly, the whole thing is a recipe for pandemonium.

Not only that, Mr Hughes’ hypocrisy is hard to stomach.

Simon Hughes, legal aid, family law

Here is a photograph I took of Mr Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, in 2013, before he became a minister. He was standing alongside members of the Justice Alliance who presented him with a letter calling for Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to oppose legal aid cuts.

Prior to his appointment as Family Justice Minister, he criticised the government’s plans for legal aid cuts. In a response to a Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation last year, he said “access to a lawyer/supplier of choice… is a fundamental right and it should not be removed by administrative means”.

He presented himself as an ally of legal aid and a supporter of the justice system, yet since his appointment he has done nothing at all to back that up. He has proved himself to be totally spineless.

Last month, he said that going to court to resolve family disputes was “not the sign of a civilised family justice system”, while insisting that mediation was a better alternative.

These are not the words of someone who truly supports our justice system. Proposing to allow student volunteers to attempt the work of lawyers is further proof.

The courts are designed to operate with lawyers. These steps indicate a government hell bent on removing us from the equation.

How much damage will they allow before they admit they’re wrong?

Photo of Simon Hughes courtesy of the Liberal Democrats via Flickr

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

Stitchedup - October 23, 2014 at 11:50am

Doesn’t this sentence tell you something?

“Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) was passed last year, legal aid for private family law cases has all but disappeared”

Why would general family law cases come under “Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders”…. is it an offence to have a disagreement with your current or ex partner whilst going through divorce or separation??? Should it be an offence????

Stitchedup - October 23, 2014 at 11:59am

The point I’m making is that by lumping legal aid in with an act that covers sentencing and punishment of offenders it creates an impression that legal aid should only be granted in the case of an offence being committed or somebody is at fault. I dare say the act itself doesn’t imply this but I’ve never read it.

Family cases are not necessarily as a result of an offence or indeed one person being at fault… very often they are about wants.

Michael Robinson - October 23, 2014 at 11:00pm

Thank you Marilyn!

I had a call tonight from someone worrying I was being a little harsh about Mr Hughes yesterday (and today) on my own blog. Thank you for the reassurance I’m not the only one who sees through the Emporer’s new clothes.

Yesterday I compared him to a Marx Brother. Reading your comment about his opposing legal aid cuts only last year, I’m reminded in what Groucho said “those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others!”

What did Mr Hughes say today? “There should be no litigant in person who doesn’t have the opportunity of getting both online advice and advice in person..” Ah Mr Hughes, you’re a comedian, but no one’s laughing.

Michael

Michael Robinson - October 23, 2014 at 11:21pm

Marilyn,

I notice you didn’t mention Hughes’ wish that the legal profession do more pro-bono work. My comment, on reading that, was that the level of funding given to the PSU could be quadrupled if MPs gave up their lunch subsidy. Given 75% of MPs are millionaires, and I believe 23 members of the Cabinet are multi-millionaires (if Question Time was right tonight), perhaps they would like to work for free too… in this time of austerity?

Lead by example?

Michael

Camilla - October 24, 2014 at 10:00am

You can view the video of Simon Hughes in November here. Interesting to see how become part of government has removed any credibility he previously had with supporters of legal aid –

http://justiceallianceuk.wordpress.com/simon-clegg-lobby-1-november-2013/

Nordic - October 24, 2014 at 10:39am

Marilyn and Michael
According to a Danish saying “Even a blind hen will occasionally find corn”. Simon Hugdes may be this proverbial blind hen, but he is absolutely right when he states that reliance on courts to resolve family law matters “is not a sign of a civilised society”.
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As a Nordic national who has been through a divorce in this jurisdiction I would characterise what you call the “Family Justice System” as a unregulated boxing ring with mum in the blue and dad in the red corner. This is true irrespective of whether the combatants hold out to the 15th round when a judge finally shows up or withdraws earlier, exhausted and with severely depleted resources. When families separate and are at their most vulnerable, the sole response from the family justice system is to dump them into a complete legal vacuum in which family law professionals can go about creating conflicts of interest. This vacuum is created by judges insistence on unlimited discretion as were they kings in medieval court, but it impacts all divorces (whether or not they end up in a final hearing). When people refer to the family “law” in this jurisdiction, I am indeed reminded of the Emperor’s new clothes.
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I do agree that the current situation is a mess and that mediation (while a good thing) is not the answer. However, nor is reinstatement of legal aid. In those areas where discretion is not necessary (e.g. asset division), the answer is real legislatively anchored law (e.g matrimonial property regime). In the many areas of family law which genuinely do require discretion, the answer is clear principles which guide the courts and provide a clear benchmark for divorcing families (such as a proper presumption on the child’s right to direct contact with both its parents).
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These isles are surrounded by more civilised jurisdictions which (to varying degrees) have managed to move away from a confrontational court centric approach to family law and most do not even have a need for specialised courts. The emotional and financial collateral damage created by the system in this jurisdiction is huge both for the parents and the children it so hypocritically claim as its paramount consideration. It would be difficult to come up with a more aggressive and destructive Family Justice System than that which we already have.

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