Legal aid, court closures and care leavers: The last week in family law

The High Court has found that the Legal Aid Agency’s current operation of the Exceptional Case Funding (‘ECF’) scheme, which was meant to act as a ‘safety net’ to mitigate the effects of the cuts, is unlawful. The ECF scheme, which is administered by the Legal Aid Agency (‘LAA’), an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, was meant to protect those whose fundamental rights would be breached in the absence of legal assistance. The case was brought by the Official Solicitor on behalf of a claimant (‘I.S.’) who has profound cognitive impairments, lacks litigation capacity and is unable to care for himself. Like many others, I.S. had originally been refused ECF. The High Court found that the ECF scheme is deficient in various respects, including the complexity of the application procedure and the nature of LAA decision-making, and that it is failing to provide the safety net that was promised by Ministers.

The ‘Family Solutions Court’ (‘FSC’), a new initiative aimed at early resolution of family disputes, has been launched by His Honour Judge John Altman, Senior Designated Family Judge for London at the Central Family Court. Based in Holborn, the FSC comprises a contact centre, a ‘pro bono’ scheme, mediation and Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (‘MIAMS’), the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Personal Support Unit and the Separated Parents Information Programme (‘SPIPS’). Judge Altman hopes that the FSC will reduce the number of contested hearings necessary in many private law applications to the court, and create a structure for those families who need help in managing their disputes around the living arrangements for their children.

Courts Minister Shailesh Vara has announced a consultation on the closure of 91 courts and tribunals in England and Wales, along with the integration of 31 courts and tribunals in England and Wales. He said that the Courts Service operates 460 courts and tribunal hearing centres across England and Wales, which costs taxpayers around half a billion pounds each year, and is at present underused. Last year over a third of all courts and tribunals were empty for more than fifty per cent of their available hearing time. The consultation puts forward proposals that aim to reduce this surplus capacity. The buildings being consulted on represent 16% of hearing rooms which are, on average, used for only a third of their available time. The majority of these courts are not used for at least two thirds of their available time, and one in three are not used three quarters of the time. He said that after these changes it will still be the case that over 95% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car.

England’s local authorities are “turning their backs” on young people leaving their care, according to the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier. She says that just eight out of 151 local councils know where all their care leavers are living, despite a duty to stay in touch with them. Further, two-thirds of care leavers’ services have been rated inadequate or requiring improvement by Ofsted. The Local Government Association has responded by saying that the problem is due to the growing number of youngsters entering the care system and increasingly stretched budgets.

Family lawyers’ association Resolution has expressed disappointment at the Government’s response to the critical report from the Justice Select Committee on the legal aid cuts. Resolution chair Jo Edwards commented: “We’re disappointed to see the bullish and unapologetic response from Government to the criticism rightly levelled at the Ministry of Justice by the Justice Select Committee report on [the cuts]. The response fails to acknowledge at all the seriousness of the problems caused by the legal aid cuts and the very significant impact on families struggling with separation. As practitioners, we see daily the problems caused by the legal aid cuts, and fully agree with the Justice Select Committee’s assessment that an urgent and comprehensive review needs to be undertaken. While there have been some welcome concessions recently, such as widening the domestic violence evidence requirements, much more needs to be done, quickly, to protect access to justice for the vulnerable.”

And finally, a millionaire market trader who modelled himself on ‘Delboy’ from the TV series Only Fools and Horses has lost a £900,000 divorce battle against his ex-wife, after he sacked her from his business. Michael Harris had claimed a half share in his former wife’s two properties, which are worth about £900,000. However, the Court of Appeal has said that he had no valid claim to an interest in the properties. Mr Harris will, however, keep the business, which is said to be worth £415,000.