A series of dramatic changes to the legal aid provision in England and Wales, came into play on the 1st of April. These changes have left tens of thousands of people in the dark about their eligibility for funding, and baffled about their ability to seek affordable legal advice.
Within the scope of family law these changes see a shift away from the previous model where you got the funding if you couldn’t afford advice, to a system that offers support and assistance to individuals at greatest risk. In general terms, funding is still going to be made available for people with cases where there are instances of domestic violence and abuse, child abduction, care proceedings and where there is a need for the representation of children.
The new structure will see the vast majority of people that need assistance with divorce and finance matters as well as those with parental responsibility and contact issues, heading for mediation rather than a traditional solicitor. Mediation is process that allows the conflicting parties to meet, together with a mediator, and try to forge an amicable resolution to their issue. Mediation has become increasingly popular in recent years as an alternative to court because of the economical and non-litigation based benefits. By taking part in constructive negotiations and discussions there is a greater chance that you will be able to maintain a healthy relationship with your former partner and make life easier for any children involved in the case.
The Ministry of Justice are investing an additional £10 million to fund mediation services to help separating couples who would previously have been eligible for Legal Aid.
Despite its many benefits, mediation is not going to be suitable for everyone, where the damage to the relationship has already been done it may be impossible to come to an agreement in which case a more traditional solicitor approach may be required.
These changes have necessitated a change in the way that many law firms deal with family law matters. Firms have had to explore alternative methods of providing their services to individuals who no longer have access to publicly funded legal services. Family law firms such as Hartnell Chanot & Partners, with our offices in Exeter and Plymouth, have been busy developing packages that will ensure that everybody still has access to quality legal advice when they need it.
Norman Hartnell, Director, Hartnell Chanot & Partners:- “In addition to mediation, collaborative law and family arbitration, a process where a trained arbitrator can issue a ruling recognised by the court, without having to go through the lengthy court process, we have developed a number of affordable ways for our clients to obtain the advice and support they still need when facing these emotionally challenging times.”
He went on to say:- ‘The most important thing to remember is that firms are adapting and that anyone who has a family law issue should still contact a firm or a mediation service to find out about the options available.”