Family legal aid: going the way of the NHS dentist

09 May 2008

Lord Carter’s proposals for radical reform of legal aid provision aim to restrict costs, particularly in crime and child care law where average case costs had been increasing at a significant rate. The danger is that these reforms will also cut access to justice for many. Just like NHS dentists there may well be a family legal aid lawyer in your high street, but more and more people are finding that these firms are overwhelmed with work and that they face a long wait before they can get an appointment.

The Legal Services Commission (the Commission) claim that the reforms, some of which were implemented in crime and family in October 2007, will not lead to a reduction in cases. Whilst the reforms introduced last October have had little time to bed down yet, there is already evidence that a number of lawyers are turning their back on legal aid, especially child care.

How easy is it for clients to find a legal aid lawyer?
The Commission claim that 96% of the population live within 5 miles of a family legal aid firm. However the key issue is not simply proximity but the capacity of those firms to take on the work. With many firms turning away from legal aid work, capacity is a real issue. If you need legal advice in relation to domestic abuse for instance, the fact that you are within 5 miles of a family legal aid lawyer isn’t much help if you have to wait weeks or months before they have capacity to take on your case.

The Commission’s own stats show that of the 2,735 family legal aid firms in the country almost a third undertake less than 1% of the work. An interpretation of these figures is that there are more and more firms heading away from family legal aid and we could be looking at a future where there are less than 1,000 firms doing any significant volume of legal aid family work.

How many legal aid practitioners are there today compared with 2000?
There has been a massive decline in the number of family legal aid contracts from over 4,500 in 2000 to now just over 2,700.

Lord Carter in his analysis took the view that there were far too many firms undertaking legal aid work and that the scheme could be operated far more efficiently if it was undertaken by larger firms, with increased volumes, enjoying the benefits of economies of scale. There is contradictory research as to whether or not this claim is sound. Certainly there is relatively little evidence either from the Commission or within the profession itself that firms are able to expand. Those that would like to have found that the figures just do not add up. Those few who have expanded have been limited to modest organic growth.

Family legal aid lawyers – an aging population?
Whilst the numbers of firms undertaking family legal aid work has declined dramatically, many are also finding it difficult to find legal aid lawyers, particularly younger people.

The profile of Resolution members doing family legal aid shows that the majority are at the older end of the spectrum: 52% of members doing legal aid work are 15 years or more qualified and only 9% are less than 5 years qualified.

This problem is understood to be particularly acute in relation to child care, with the number of child care panel practitioners under the age of 30 numbering only 2 or 3.

Greater efficiency or increased bureaucracy?
Fixed fees were supposed to bring economies to firms in the way cases are run yet bureaucracy continues to be a major hurdle to efficiency.

There is no doubt that bureaucracy has increased both in the conduct of individual cases but also in simply managing a contract with the Commission. For example one change on its own - the new process introduced by the Ministry of Justice of means tested remission of fees in divorce cases – now means that what should be a simple three hour job carries an additional 30 minutes of bureaucracy.

Too many radical changes too quickly.
The family legal aid network is extremely fragile, a period of stability is now essential. Time must be allowed for a full and careful analysis of the impact of the reforms on the financial viability of firms, but most especially on the public’s ease of access to justice before further reforms are introduced.

Note to editors
Resolution is 5,000-strong group of family lawyers committed to promoting a non-confrontational atmosphere in which family law matters are dealt with in a sensitive, constructive and cost-effective way. It sets high standards of good practice in family law and runs an accreditation scheme for specialist family lawyers.

For further information or to arrange an interview please contact:
David Emmerson
Resolution, Chair of Legal Aid Committee
Mobile: 07976 702597
Office: 0208 514 9000

Teresa Richardson
Resolution, Head of Communications
Mobile: 07894 981020
Direct line: 020 7357 9215