Legal aid, Brexit, online advice and domestic abuse: The last week in family law

 A “worrying level of complacency”, lack of clarity, and inadequate advice over the family justice system after Brexit will have a devastating knock-on effect on the UK family law courts, and ultimately children, the House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee has warned. The Committee has written to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke MP, warning the Government again that without alternatives in place for civil justice by the time the UK leaves the EU, there would be “great uncertainty for UK businesses and citizens”. The Committee recommends that the Withdrawal Agreement should make explicitly clear that it will encompass the rules that apply in international child abduction cases, and not be subject to the jurisdiction of individual countries. It states that the current plan for EU cooperation after Brexit is far too vague and much more detail is needed, particularly regarding family law, and that simply advising people to seek legal advice is inadequate. Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, the Chairman of the Committee, said: “The government needs to wake up to the reality of what having no answers on family justice will mean after Brexit. The uncertainty ultimately leaves vulnerable children as the victims … With the deadline for a Brexit deal looming, the need for clarity is getting more and more urgent.”

A new research project is to examine whether vulnerable
people representing themselves in child court cases find themselves and their
children put at risk by misinformed or biased online legal advice. Academics at
Birmingham City University and the University of Leeds have launched the new
project which will explore the quality and types of advice handed out through
legal advisors, online help forums or social media boards. The research will be
carried out by English linguistics specialist Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior
Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University, and legal expert
Hilary Sommerlad, Professor of Law and Justice at the University of Leeds. Dr
Tkacukova said: “People representing themselves in court often find themselves
at an immediate disadvantage because the language of law, the documentation and
the processes are all geared towards those who have previous working knowledge
of it. For people without any background in law it is very difficult to know
where to look for relevant information, which legal concepts are applicable to
their case or how to present their side of the story in an appropriate way, so
often they will look for help, support or information online. Unfortunately a
lot of the information which is out there is either incorrect or has been
designed to further a specific viewpoint of how justice should or should not
work. This can not only lead to people unwittingly be used to further
propaganda, but more worryingly can have a serious impact on the way justice is
delivered and the lives of children. What we want to do with this project is
find out what information [litigants in person] are seeking online and what advice
they are provided with so that we are able to help drive change and support
people in searching for legal advice they need.”

And finally, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has
urged the Government to widen its forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill to include national
funding for refuges, a new register for serial stalkers and domestic violence
perpetrators, and an end to single Universal Credit payments. Chair of the
Committee Yvette Cooper MP commented: “Domestic abuse is one of the most
dangerous and the most common crimes there is. Millions of people are affected
each year, and two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex. The
Government is rightly proposing new legislation and a new strategy, but our
inquiry found much stronger action is needed across the board. Shockingly many
refuges are turning away 60% of their referrals due to lack of space. We
urgently need more refuge places – provision should be a requirement on local
authorities, backed by national ring fenced funding. Rightly the Government has
recognised the serious problem of economic abuse. But Universal Credit is
making it much harder for women to maintain financial independence or to leave
abusive relationships and the Government’s insistence on a single household
payment is a serious retrograde step. Separate family payments to ensure some
independent income for the parent at home caring for children have been a
feature of the welfare system ever since the introduction of Family Allowance
for very good reason, and they are still part of the Scottish system today. If
the Government is serious about tackling economic abuse, it needs to urgently
rethink.”