Legal aid cuts to family law

On 1 April 2013 the Coalition government removed legal aid (ie financial help with lawyers' fees) from most areas of family law, as part of its spending cuts programme. Here, we explain what the changes mean.

Legal Aid sign
Which areas of law do the legal aid cuts affect?

Divorce - the legal process where you formally end your marriage or civil partnership.

  • You will no longer be able to get legal aid to help you resolve issues regarding your children through the family courts, whether or not you are married, such as:
  • Residence disputes - where a child should live
  • Contact disputes - how much time a child should spend seeing each parent
  • Specific issue applications - whether a child can be removed from the country, for example on holiday, or which school a child should go to
  • Prohibitive steps applications - restrictions and impositions on what a parent can do with a child 
  • Parental responsibility disputes

Family finance issues, such as:

  • Whether the family home should be sold
  • What share each person should have of the family assets, whether owned individually or jointly
  • Sharing pensions
  • Child Support Agency payments
  • Financial support for children generally
  • Maintenance, property and other assets of co-habiting couples


How will the legal aid changes affect women?

Many commentators are concerned that the cuts will adversely affect women because:

  • A significantly higher proportion of women than men presently petition for divorce
  • A significantly higher proportion of women are the main carers of children and the legal aid cuts are specifically aimed at reducing applications to the courts concerning children
  • Women tend to have less economic power and fewer financial assets and so the lack of financial assistance in applying to the courts for a fairer share of assets in cases of relationship breakdown will affect women far more than men.
Legal definition of domestic abuse
Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (whether psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between individuals who are associated with each other.


Legal aid is still available in certain cases

  • Domestic abuse injunctions - there has been no change to legal aid in cases where there has been any recent incidents of domestic abuse (see the box for a definition of domestic abuse) to either you, to a child of yours, or a threat that domestic abuse or harm to a child might occur.

If you're in this situation, family law specialist organisation Resolution will be able to help you find a local solicitor specialising in domestic abuse, so that you can get immediate help and assistance in applying to the court for protection.

  • Past incidences of domestic abuse - to you, or harm to children, even if there has been no very recent domestic abuse, legal aid may be available for both children disputes and finance cases if there has been domestic abuse in the past.

You will need to produce specific evidence of the abuse to apply for legal aid. The Ministry of Justice has full guidance on obtaining evidence of domestic abuse or harm to a child.

In most instances this key documentary evidence needs to apply in or to the 24-month period immediately preceding your application for legal aid:

  • A letter from a health professional (registered doctor or nurse) confirming that they examined you and that you had injuries or a condition consistent with those of a victim of domestic violence and they had no reason to believe that your injuries or condition were not caused by domestic violence (NB: if you haven't already, visit your GP now and explain past problems)
  • Your spouse or former partner has a relevant unspent conviction for a domestic violence offence
  • Your spouse or former partner has a relevant police caution for a domestic violence
  • Evidence of relevant criminal proceedings against your spouse or former partner for a domestic violence offence, which have not yet concluded
  • A non-molestation Family Law Act injunction order against your spouse or former partner
  • An undertaking given by your spouse or former partner in Family Law Act injunction

Similar proof is needed in relation to harm to a child. You may have to pay to obtain some of this information, such as the medical report.

Exceptional cases where legal aid is needed

If you have a condition or disability that prevents you from representing yourself in court, or your case is particularly complex in terms of the facts or the law, then you may be eligible for Exceptional Legal Aid. For more information contact your local Resolution solicitor. 

Legal aid is also available for the following:

  • Care proceedings involving your children and the Local Authority
  • Wardship cases
  • Child abduction cases where a child has been physically removed from your care whether out of this country or abroad
  • Forced Marriage protection cases


What alternatives are there if legal aid isn't available?

  • Mediation – legal aid is available for mediation. Mediation is often very cost effective and successful in most cases. Resolution has a find a mediator function.
  • Fixed-price options for divorce, finance and children cases - many solicitors now offer fixed-fee prices and have budgeting arrangements that allow you to pay over a period of time by standing order or a loan. Search firms in your area.
  • DIY – there are many websites available for information on how to Do It Yourself.

Consider paying for a fixed-price advice session at the outset or at key times as your case progresses with a Resolution family specialist in your area who can take details from you, advise you on the law and procedure, and how it applies to you and your situation. They will also advise you on the different options available for resolving the dispute and how much it might cost.

 

Please note that each application for legal aid is subject to the detailed rules and regulations concerning income and capital eligibility and merits regulations. Legal aid is still available for mediation to resolve finance and children disputes.


This information on this page was kindly provided by David Emmerson of TV Edwards - a national firm of solicitors specialising in family law. Contact david.emmerson@tvedwards.com or visit www.tvedwards.com.

Last updated: 23-Sep-2013 at 2:39 PM