A week of family law reform, legal aid and observations from the Specialist Domestic Violence Courts

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As I reported here, the seventh annual report on the implementation of Law Commission recommendations has been published. In the field of family law, there are three very important recommendations that have not yet been implemented, and that are awaiting a Government decision on implementation. They comprise reforms to clarify the law on financial remedies, property rights for cohabitants, and simplification of the law on enforcement of financial orders. As I said in my post, these excellent recommendations, which could go a long way towards seriously improving the family justice system, have been left sitting on the shelf for too long by the Government. In particular, the recommendation to give property rights to cohabitants (which, contrary to what some may say, would not give cohabitants the same rights as married couples) looks unlikely to ever make it to the statute book, leaving many former cohabitants in dire financial circumstances.

As I also reported here, defendants facing domestic abuse-related charges may be ‘gaming’ the system in order to have the charges against them dropped, a report has claimed. The report, on observations of Specialist Domestic Violence Courts in the Northumbria Magistrates’, says that defendants may be intimidating their victims into not appearing at court, in the expectation that the magistrates will then drop the charges against them. As I said in my post, there is absolutely nothing new in this – there have always been domestic abusers who behave in this fashion. The trick, of course, is to reduce their levels of ‘success’. The report makes various recommendations as to how this may be achieved, including calling for better support for victims and better training of court personnel.

In a piece of good news, the Government has announced that housing benefit will be kept in place for all those living in supported housing. Supported housing provides a home to some of the most vulnerable people in society, giving people in crisis, such as those facing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence, a secure place to stay. Last year the Government published proposals on new ways of funding supported housing, which it was feared would force many domestic abuse refuges to close. Having listened to views from providers, stakeholders and councils, the Government has decided housing benefit will remain in place to fund such accommodation.

The announcement was welcomed by Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, who said:

“Today Women’s Aid is delighted the government has listened and acted to keep refuge doors open for survivors of domestic abuse. Rent in refuges will continue to be funded through housing benefit. This will be warmly welcomed by survivors and our member services; housing benefit makes up, on average, around half of a refuge’s income.”

And finally, a story that will not be news to anyone involved in the family justice system. The Legal Services Board (‘LSB’), the independent body responsible for overseeing the regulation of lawyers in England and Wales, has published its written submission to the Ministry of Justice’s post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (often referred to as ‘LASPO’). Amongst other things, LASPO abolished legal aid for most private law family matters.

Dr Helen Phillips, Chair of the Legal Services Board said:

“Our research shows that, in recent years, a growing proportion of individuals are handling their legal problems alone and that a declining proportion are seeking advice … It has become clear that individuals whose finances are stretched, but not severely enough to qualify for legal aid, are the least likely to use a lawyer. Reductions in legal aid carry the risk of increasing the number of these ‘stretched consumers’. We think it is important to look at what has happened to consumers who are no longer able to access legal aid following the reforms … We are also concerned about whether the reforms may have had knock-on effects elsewhere in the justice system and also more broadly in other areas of public spending such as health.”

The LSB say that they hope that their submission (which you can read here) can assist the Ministry of Justice’s review “to deliver outcomes that promote access to justice.”

I won’t be holding my breath – I’m afraid we are moving towards a society in which lawyers are the sole preserve of the better off.

Have a good weekend.

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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