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Legal aid bill will be bad for families, alliance warns MPs

24 October 2011

An alliance of family-related organisations and family lawyers has warned MPs that the legal aid bill will be “bad for children, bad for women and bad for families”.

The alliance includes the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the children’s commissioner, the Bar Council and Resolution. Its manifesto, sent to all MPs in advance of next week’s third reading of the bill in the Commons, calls on the government to amend its definition of domestic abuse.

“The narrow definition of domestic abuse, which is more restrictive than that used by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers, will limit legal aid to certain ‘types’ of abuse,” the manifesto states.

It predicts that keeping legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, but not perpetrators, could result in an increasing number of vulnerable witnesses being subjected to cross-examination in court by their alleged abusers.

The manifesto warns that children alleging abuse may also be cross-examined in this way if most adults in private law cases are excluded from the scope of legal aid, even in “cases of significant difficulty involving legally represented children”.

Mediation will not resolve many disputes, the manifesto says, and “experience shows that it is highly likely to fail where one partner is unwilling to compromise or when one or more partner is suffering from mental health or substance misuse problems, for example.

“For these people, the support of the state will be pulled from beneath from their feet when they are most in need.”

The manifesto argued that removing legal aid from private law cases would cost, rather than save, money and lead to “poor outcomes”.

Stephen Cobb QC, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, a member of the alliance, said: “The prime minister stated that he wanted a family test for all domestic policy. Clearly nobody has applied that test to this bill.”

Cobb said families were facing a “disturbing new landscape in which 600,000 people will no longer receive legal aid, 68,000 children will be affected by the removal of legal aid in family cases, 54,000 fewer people will be represented in the family courts annually and there will be 75 per cent fewer private law cases in court.

“When the government consulted on these proposals, virtually no one supported them.”

Cobb went on: “It is not too late for the government to change its approach. If it really has the interests of families in mind, then it has to think again.”

The legal aid bill returns to the Commons for its third reading on Monday 31 October.

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Legal Aid