Legal aid cuts 'put a generation of children in danger'

Lawyers warn it is just a matter of time before they are dealing with a case of murder

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."


Arts and Entertainment
JJ Abrams' seventh Star Wars, The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of Episode VII has gone online after weeks of anticipation
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; up to £55k

    £50000 - £55000 per annum: Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you have experience of B2B s...

    Citifocus Ltd: German Speaking Client Specialist

    £Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Prestigious asset management house seeks a...

    Citifocus Ltd: Performance & Risk Oversight

    £Negotiable: Citifocus Ltd: This is a varied role focusing on the firm's mutua...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game