Legal aid, adoption and vulnerable witnesses: The last week in family law

The Commons Justice Select Committee has published its report into the impact of the changes to legal aid brought in under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The report’s conclusions include that the faulty implementation of the legal aid changes has harmed access to justice; that the shortfall in debt advice and exceptional cases funding grants should have received urgent investigation and that there is no realistic prospect of substantially increased funding for legal aid in the civil courts. The report also said that the changes caused enormous strain on the family courts and poorer outcomes for those going through the justice system.

A statistical release by the Department for Education has revealed that there were 5,050 looked after children adopted during the year ending 31st of  March 2014, an increase of 26% from 2013 and an increase of 58% from 2010. Although the number of looked after children adopted fell between 2010 and 2011, the number of these adoptions has since increased and is now at its highest point since 1992. The release also showed that there were 68,840 looked after children at 31st of March 2014, an increase of 1% compared to 31st of March 2013 and an increase of 7% compared to 31st of March 2010. The numbers have increased steadily over the past five years.

A report prepared by Women’s Aid for the TUC claims to reveal the hidden misery of women trapped in financially abusive relationships, in many cases leaving them trapped in poverty and without any access to money for essentials, emergencies or for their children. The report catalogues the experiences and views of women who took part in research through focus groups and a survey – shining a light, the report says, on a problem which is not only misunderstood but for which there are no official figures. The report also explores how the introduction of Universal Credit threatens to compound the problem for these women, by further reducing their access to independent income and placing yet more control in the hands of the abuser. The report concludes with recommendations to alleviate the problem.

Family lawyers’ association Resolution has said that last week’s Supreme Court decision in Wyatt v Vince shows the need for reform of the law around divorce finance, as set out in their Manifesto for Family Law. Resolution wants reform to create greater certainty around divorce with the aim of getting couples to financial independence sooner. Resolution chair Jo Edwards commented: We are rightly proud of the broad discretion which the family courts have in England and Wales and the ability to tailor outcomes to families. However, critics would say that we need to inject a greater degree of certainty into outcomes in family cases, and in doing so reduce the extent and cost of litigation associated with the broad discretion we have”.

And finally, the Vulnerable Witnesses & Children Working Group has published its final report. The Working Group was set up last year by the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, to review the guidelines for judges meeting children subject to family proceedings and guidance on them giving evidence. The report also looks at the wider issue of vulnerable people giving evidence in family proceedings. The Working Group considers that the Family Court has fallen behind the criminal courts in its approach to the evidence of children and young people, and makes various recommendations to reform the system.