A generation of children risks being traumatised by the Government's swingeing legal aid cuts, and youngsters caught in violent homes are already being placed in acute danger, family law experts have revealed. Two months after free legal services were abolished in most divorce and custody cases, lawyers warn it is just a matter of time before they are dealing with the murder of an abused mother or her children.
In the most damning assessment yet, barristers, solicitors and charities strongly condemned the civil legal aid cuts as an attack on the country's most vulnerable children from its poorest communities. Experts predict a spike in angry parents, too poor to afford private legal help, simply taking the law into their own hands. They warn a generation of youngsters from impoverished communities will be emotionally damaged by parental battles or simply lose access to their fathers and paternal relatives.
Lawyers revealed that judges are circumventing government cuts by appointing solicitors to represent children caught in the crossfire between parents. They predict that in the most extreme cases courts will be forced to resort to placing children in care.
In an attempt to cut the legal aid bill by £270m, the Government withdrew funding for numerous categories of civil law when the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force on 1 April, affecting as many as 600,000 people. In family law, only exceptional cases such as those involving domestic violence or forced marriage now have access to a free solicitor.
"Many vulnerable people's lives will be made worse because this Government is making our legal system the preserve of the rich," said the shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, yesterday.
"Somebody has got to speak up," said Caroline Makin, whose firm deals with disadvantaged families in Bradford and across Yorkshire.
Almost daily, her firm Makin Dixon is approached by frightened mothers, and sometimes fathers, some of whom have endured years of abuse. Prior to the cuts, she explained, they could seek immediate steps to safeguard children including prohibited steps orders as well as non-molestation orders to protect parents.
As a result of recent changes, they must now go to court first to gain the restriction order for the parent before being eligible for legal aid to seek the order protecting the child. Not only does this mean a waste of court time, with two cases instead of one, it can take a day, even overnight, before the second case is dealt with, Ms Makin said.
"We are not being dramatic. These are cases where there is a really violent partner. Vulnerable children are being put in danger," said her colleague Jane Campbell. "The administrative burden is placing children, even very young children, who live in a state of poverty and are the most vulnerable in society, at significant risk of harm."
Ms Makin added that she feared that such delays risk losing frightened clients, who are daunted by the prospect of one visit to court, let alone two. "It is very hard for them to reach out for help. Every time they walk out our door, there is a chance they will not come back. It should be made easier to get this protection, not harder.
"We had a case in Keighley where the lady was going to come back. She never did. She had been murdered by her husband. That is not a one-off case. It is only a matter of time before this happens between a non-molestation order and a prohibited steps order."
Christina Blacklaws of the Co-operative Legal Services said they were already seeing domestic violence victims "falling through the net" because they were being forced to "jump through hoops" to prove the abuse.
The cuts are also hitting fathers denied access to children but unable to get legal help, Ms Makin explained. "It is a basic human right, the right of a child to both parents and the wider family," she said. "The reality is there is going to be a generation of children who don't have access to their fathers. Who knows what psychological damage will arise from that, all for the sake of £350 [the previous legal aid fee for dealing with child contact cases]?
"Absent parents will take matters into their own hands because they don't have the option of early intervention. You hear of cases where parents snatch children, even terrible cases of fathers who kill themselves and their children. These happened before the 1 April cuts, when they had more opportunities available. Now you are going to see a sharp increase in that."
Duncan Ranton of th family law solicitors Bishop & Sewell agreed: "It took a series of high-profile tragedies before the Government took seriously the need properly to resource public law cases. The fear among those working at the coalface now is that something equally horrific will have to happen, which is politically inexpedient, before there is any acknowledgement that the short-term savings achieved are storing up huge trouble and cost for the future."
The Government is trying to steer people towards mediation and, while the lawyers support the system, it does not work in cases where partners are combative and unco-operative. Parents forced to represent themselves can be so entrenched in their own angry views that the children's best interests are forgotten.
Greg Davies, a leading barrister dealing with family law, said he feared that children would end up in care when the judge deemed that the emotional trauma of their parents' divorce had become too severe. Without the "buffer" of a legal representative, children risked being caught in an "emotional fire storm".
"It is a really, really frightening situation at the moment," he said. "There is going to be a spike in the emotional harm to the child as a result of parents unrepresented and without any sensible advice. If the harm is at risk of increasing and the court can see that, it might well get the local authority involved because parents are causing such harm to the child due to the dispute. There will potentially be an increase in applications for care proceedings."
In some courts judges have begun appointing solicitors to represent children where they feel it is in their best interests. Ms Campbell said their firm had agreed to represent an 18-month-old girl but had no idea whether they will receive legal aid funding. "We might take a hit but we are not willing to turn our backs on an 18-month-old baby," she said.
While judges have always had the power to take such action, lawyers say it has become much more frequent, with rotas of "litigation friends" for children being set up.
"What is happening in certain parts of the country is judges are more inclined to make a child a party to the case to make sure there is some focus on what is in their best interests," said Noel Arnold, director of legal practice at the children's charity Coram. "Our concern is where this will lead them in terms of long-term development and emotional needs. One only sees the real impact in later years."
Yesterday, a Ministry of Justice spokesman responded: "As part of our legal aid reforms we made sure that family cases involving children at risk continued to qualify for funding. This means cases including care proceedings, the unlawful removal of a child, and child contact cases where there is a risk of child abuse or where domestic violence has been an issue will all generally be covered.
"Legal aid is paid for by taxpayers and resources are not limitless, especially in the current economic climate. We had to make some tough decisions, but from 1 April, reforms have been in place to safeguard legal aid to ensure lawyers are there for those who really need them."