Want a divorce? You probably won’t get legal aid

Solicitor Samantha Lee, right of Swain and Co in South Street Havant''''Picture: Paul Jacobs  (131178-2)
Solicitor Samantha Lee, right of Swain and Co in South Street Havant''''Picture: Paul Jacobs (131178-2)
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In a perfect world, couples would live happily after ever. But, in the real world, relationships do break down and families do have disputes – and sometimes only legal action can resolve matters.

Until now people who couldn’t afford legal advice had a safety net.

They could qualify for legal aid and had their solicitors’ fees paid while they wrangled through complex and delicate matters such as deciding their children’s living arrangements.

But on April 1 public funding was removed from entire areas of civil law as the government aims to slash its £2.2bn legal aid bill by £350m.

Areas which will no longer qualify for funding include family cases where couples are divorcing and sorting out living arrangements for their children, unless there is proven domestic violence.

Advice on some employment and education law; personal injury and some clinical negligence cases; immigration where the person is not detained; and some debt and some housing problems will also no longer qualify.

Cases that will continue to receive funding include family law cases involving domestic violence; forced marriage or child abduction issues; mental health cases; asylum; and debt and housing matters where someone’s home is at immediate risk.

The depth of the cuts has concerned Samantha Lee, a 42-year-old mum-of-two who works as a family law solicitor at Havant firm Swain & Co.

‘What the cuts did is remove legal aid from anybody with a family law problem unless there was a history of domestic violence,’ she says.

‘But the evidence that you need to prove domestic violence is a very high bar.

‘It’s a well-known fact that a lot of domestic violence goes unreported.

‘Everybody is affected – if you were married and had children and you separated your wife or partner could say, “You’re not seeing them”.

‘There is legal aid available to go to mediation, but both parties have to be willing.

‘If the one parent says they are not going to go to mediation, if you can’t afford to make an application to the courts, which could run into thousands of pounds, that’s it – you won’t see your children.

‘There could be a whole generation of children growing up without having a right to see both their parents.’

Samantha says she is dealing with people every week who are being disadvantaged by the cuts – which could create vast inequalities between parties basely purely on what legal representation, if any, they can afford.

Many are facing having to represent themselves in court.

She says: ‘I have been trying to help a woman who has three children and has mental health problems. She was in hospital for a short period and during that time the children went to live with their father.

‘She’s now come out of hospital and he won’t let her see them.

‘She’s got to make an application to the court, but she’s on benefits. There’s no way she can afford to pay it.

‘We are trying to help her do it herself, but we can only do so much work for free because ultimately we are still a business and need to pay our staff and overheads. It’s people like that who are really suffering as a result of the legal aid cuts.’

Someone at the sharp end of the changes is Craig Callaghan, 26, from Cowplain, who is trying to increase contact with his two-year-old daughter, whom he currently sees for two hours every fortnight in a contact centre.

Craig, who works for Southern Electric in Havant, says: ‘It’s ridiculous, the fact that people with very genuine cases are struggling to see their kids. Then you have people who are breaking the law who still qualify for legal aid.

‘It makes you wonder which side the government is on.

‘There are people out there struggling to solve family issues and really need the help and then you have people taking the mickey out of the system who get all their funding.

‘It’s another example of where this government has gone catastrophically wrong.’

He is now doing everything he can to save up to pay for the legal costs.

He said: ‘It’s virtually crippling me.

‘It’s going to cost me thousands to get my little girl back.’

Some may argue, however, that solicitors make enough money as it is and the public purse should not have to sort out family disputes.

We are in an age of austerity, after all.

But Samantha says: ‘Obviously I appreciate there has to be savings and the government needs to bring down the borrowing.

‘They could have dealt with it in different ways.

‘The way they have just cut it completely does put some people in an impossible situation.

‘People can only access justice in the courts if they can afford it.

‘Then you have inequality between parties.

‘There may be one parent who is earning a really decent salary and can afford to pay for solicitors and the other party, traditionally the mum who’s been looking after the children, can’t – and that’s not fair.’

During the interview, several families have walked in off the street seeking advice and you can see this operation is at the heart of the community.

Samantha says: ‘Nobody goes into legal aid law to make money.

‘We make a decent living, but this perception of fat cat lawyers is not true.

‘People with a social conscience go into legal aid work.

‘We are still committed to doing it.

‘You see people that come in, their marriage has broken down or they have a personal problem and are a complete mess.

‘By the end of it they can see a way forward, and something they can live with, and, for me, that’s really rewarding.’