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Legal aid cuts will reduce family solicitors, Norgrove warns

Supply of 'properly qualified' lawyers 'vital to the protection of children'

7 November 2011

Cutting legal aid for private law family cases could reduce the number of solicitors, close firms and put the safety of children at risk, David Norgrove said in his final report on the family justice system.

The warning came as MPs made no amendments to the government’s legal aid bill, as it cleared its report stage and third reading in the Commons, despite a minor rebellion by ten Liberal Democrat MPs over funding for complex benefits cases.

“The legal aid cuts may lead to a reduction in numbers of family solicitors and barristers and the closure of some firms,” Norgrove said.

“There is also a risk that lower funding may dissuade future entrants to this area of the profession. The effects will be felt directly in private law but may also reduce the availability of family lawyers for public law, particularly outside the largest cities.

“The impact of the reforms will need to be carefully monitored by the LSC and MoJ. The supply of properly qualified family lawyers is vital to the protection of children.”

Norgrove said he was “particularly concerned that a consequence of the proposed changes in legal aid will inevitably see a rise in the number of litigants in person coming before the family courts”.

He added, at a press conference to launch the final report, that he had urged the government to look at the experience of the USA, where the great majority of litigants represented themselves and where help desks and websites had been brought in to help cope.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said cutting down on family legal aid would merely create more delays and costs for the court system.

“There are a lot of cases where mediation won’t work and is not appropriate,” he said. “It’s a collaborative process. Why should husbands, with all the resources, be interested in participating in mediation where their wives will not be able to go to court because they have no legal aid?”

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, said: “Legal aid cuts will lead to more people going to court unrepresented, and family courts slowing down even further. More people will have completely unrealistic expectations of the process because they haven’t had a family solicitor’s advice.”

Hudson said the “overall aims” of the Norgrove report should be supported and its recognition of the need for “radical and lasting change” within family justice.

Compulsory mediation awareness sessions for divorcing couples, recommended by Norgrove in his interim report, have already been implemented (see 11 April 2011). The final report incorporated the interim’s reports recommendations on private law cases, while calling for a statutory six-month limit on care proceedings.

Norgrove told journalists that setting out the limit in legislation was the “only way to get it taken seriously”.

He said in the report that, although courts should continue to play a central role in public law cases, they should “refocus on the core issues of whether the child is to live with parents, other family or friends, or be removed to the care of the local authority”.

In a separate development, Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, responded to the Norgrove report by appointing Mr Justice Ryder to the new post of ‘judge in charge of modernisation of family justice’.

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