Family Legal Aid – Update

On Tuesday I attended a second meeting at the House of Lords, hosted by the Parliamentary Justice Committee, this time chaired by Lord Thomas of Gresford. The meeting was convened to consider further the topic: ‘Vulnerable Children at Risk: How Will The Legal Services Commission’s Proposals Help?, which it might be thought was a rather leading question. Most of the attendees needed no leading however, and universally spoke of their deep concern about the proposals and the wider crisis within the Family Justice System.

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Notable attendess were Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Justice Committee, the Earl of Listowel (All Party Group for Children), Sue Berelowitz Deputy Children’s Commissioner, and a representative from NAGALRO (representing CAFCASS and independent social workers).

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Speakers were Barbara Esam (Head of Legal NSPCC), Lucy Theis QC (Chair FLBA), Caroline Little (Co-Chair Association of Lawyers for Children) and two fantastic young people from Hull who told us about their experiences of the care system and why they were grateful that care proceedings had turned their lives around. What was striking about the two girls who spoke at the meeting was that they had benefited from appropriate foster placement and thrived with stability of placement and continuity of social work care – both rarities. They were two brilliant reminders of why we do what we do, and most definitely success stories. They each gave a presentation and fielded questions from the chair about their experiences (no mean feat for anyone, and very impressive for a 13 and 16 year old) – they even told me afterwards they had no butterflies, and one of them even wanted to become a family lawyer. She was certainly confident and articulate enough to make an excellent advocate and I am sure both girls will succeed in life.

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Myself and Lorna Cservenka a Children Panel solicitor were also asked to speak briefly about our experiences as ‘young’ advocates and lawyers (although whether we qualify as young is a matter of perspective). Both of us gave examples of long hours worked in the preceding week, of our experience of colleagues leaving the profession, of the difficulties across the board from CAFCASS to HMCS to the difficulties of making the finances stack up in family law practice. And both of us spoke about how undervalued we and our colleagues felt. Lorna found it difficult to see how new entrants would be encouraged, and I found it hard to see how barristers would make ends meet if the cuts came in. We both spoke about how important it was to get early steps in care proceedings right, and to have experienced advocates challenging care plans and poor social work decisions in order to get and keep a child’s life on track. Others in the room echoed that sentiment – once things have gone wrong, for example because of inexperienced advocates or social workers, it is very hard to recover the situation and that has long term and serious consequences for children.

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Alan Beith MP confirmed that the Justice Committee will be publishing a report on this issue in the next ten days or so. He has gone on record as expressing concern about the proposals and the LSC’s approach to working with the stakeholders and service providers.

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Lucy Theis QC reported that the LSC had accepted some further graduation was necessary, but that there were still concerns about the underlying data upon which the figures were to be based.

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Barbara Esam called for a whole new consultation to be launched involving children as stakeholders. She pointed out that the LSC had wholly failed to consult children thus far, and she quoted extensively from Mark Potter’s recent speech on the Family Justice System in which he expressed significant concerns about a number of matters including the proposed fee cuts. You can read a copy of the speech here: (Hershman Levy Lecture).

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I understand that the LSC is still proposing to press ahead with its implementation of the interim changes to SIPS forms by the close of Parliament in spite of those changes being based on what is acknowledged to be flawed data. It is still unclear when those changes will take effect. It would be nice to know what we can expect to be paid when we take bookings – many of us will have committed to work already and which may be paid in the event significantly less than we had originally thought. But clearly giving the bar a fair shot at planning its finances is way down the list of priorities for the LSC.

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The response to the consultation is scheduled to be published on 21 July. I wait with dread, but some small hope.

One thought on “Family Legal Aid – Update

  1. […] have a rough idea of what the scheme entails, because I was involved through the FLBA in the process that led to its creation last year. But now its down to the nitty […]

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