Family Legal Aid will be "fatally undermined"

18 Aug 2006

Family law group Resolution is warning that the proposed Carter reforms to the legal aid system will leave many vulnerable people without adequate legal advice on family matters.

In a letter to the Lord Chancellor, they warn of the “fragile state” of family legal aid services. Almost half of all contractors have already withdrawn from family publicly funded work in the past six years.

Says Resolution’s chief executive, Karen Mackay, “We are concerned that if the timetable for implementing a radical restructuring of legal aid services is rushed through, the supplier base will be fatally undermined, leading to the loss of access to justice for vulnerable members of the public.”

Resolution, which represents 5000 family lawyers in England and Wales, was commenting on the DCA/LSC consultation paper on the proposed Carter reforms to legal aid provision. They say that the proposals have given insufficient attention to the need for legal aid provision in family matters, and that not enough time has been given for consultation, or negotiation, if the proposals are to be implemented in April 2007.

“Lord Carter’s emphasis was very much on criminal legal aid and that is what has been in the public mind. Family legal aid – although the second largest part of the legal aid scheme – was very much an after-thought. Family legal aid practitioners never had the opportunity to ‘open their books’ to Lord Carter and his team and explain the kind of work they do and the pressures they are under, in the way that the criminal practitioners had.

“There is too much at stake here for the government to take hasty and ill-thought-through decisions. We are imploring them to take more time over the whole family law question to ensure that the most vulnerable in society don’t find themselves without adequate legal representation.”
Resolution says that whilst it had some consultation with the Carter team, the whole question of fee levels was never discussed so the fee proposals in the consultation paper were totally unexpected.

Says Karen Mackay, “Many of our members have been surprised and perturbed at the levels proposed and at a loss to understand how these figures have been arrived at. It is clear that those who compiled the report had little or no understanding of the environment within which family law legal aid firms operate.

“The proposed timetable for consultation and implementation is unrealistic and unworkable. Extending it is essential if the profession is to have any confidence in the final proposals to emerge from the consultation.”