This post is a guest post written by Rachel Divall and Susannah Mengesha at the Bar Pro Bono Unit.
The Bar Pro Bono Unit & Family Cases
The Unit is a charity which exists to try to fill the increasing gulf between those individuals able to fund legal assistance on a private basis and those eligible for legal aid. We have around 2,500 barristers on our panel, each of whom has in theory agreed to give three days of pro bono (free) work each year. We deal with cases in all areas of law at all levels of court and tribunal, and receive a significant number of applications from unrepresented individuals within family proceedings.
The family applications we receive come from individuals playing a huge variety of different roles within every type of family proceedings. In one recent case we were able to provide representation to grandparents whose residency of their grandson was being challenged by the child’s mother on the grounds of alleged abuse. In another we supported a victim of domestic violence by providing a barrister for every hearing within complex divorce and ancillary relief proceedings over a period of more than a year. We receive a large number of applications from individuals whose disposable income or equity in the family home is just enough to put legal aid funding out of reach while remaining far from the level necessary to pay for assistance privately. Others have an apparently healthy income which in reality is immediately swallowed up by the repayment of substantial debts, leaving nothing with which to pay legal fees.
We are not able to accept applications directly from members of the public. Our applicants come instead through advice agencies, solicitors and MPs. We find that the overwhelming majority of applicants are easily able to find an organisation willing to make a Unit referral, and that this is most often a local Citizens Advice Bureau. Every completed application received at the Unit is sent for review with a senior barrister who will make a decision as to whether we can look to provide assistance. A number of factors are taken into account at this stage, including the financial means of the applicant, the level of assistance required and the legal merits of the case. For more information about our charity and how to either make an application or refer someone for assistance please visit our website.
We work closely with our sister charity, LawWorks, who co-ordinate the pro bono work carried out by solicitors. Where our reviewers identify a case as requiring solicitor-type support instead of or in addition to assistance from counsel, we are able to refer the file over to LawWorks who will look to facilitate this. This process has become even easier since both charities moved into a new office space the National Pro Bono Centre in July of last year. Unfortunately LawWorks currently cannot provide assistance in family cases.
Underpinning the work we do at the Unit is a belief in access to justice. There are already significant gaps in both the theoretical and practical availability of legal aid, with these likely to become immeasurably larger once the impending cuts take effect. Therefore while we believe that pro bono work should only ever be a top up to a comprehensive system of publicly funded advice and have been vocal in our opposition to the cuts, we feel it is important to continue to assist those unable to find advice or representation elsewhere.
As a small charity already running at close to full capacity we could never hope to fill the chasm that will be left by the withdrawal of legal aid. In particular, the almost total removal of public funding for private family matters is likely to drastically increase the number of applications we receive in this area. While we will of course do our best to meet this increased need, the reality is that many individuals will be facing the Family Court system without the assistance of either a solicitor or a barrister.
Family proceedings can be immensely complex, lengthy and distressing, and that's despite legal assistance. To expect parents and children to navigate the entire process alone will place huge additional pressures on families already at breaking point. It will also place an enormous burden on the courts themselves, with any potential savings brought about by the cuts almost certain to be swallowed up by the delays and complexities caused by an increase in unrepresented litigants. Most seriously the proposed cuts bring with them the possibility of incorrect decisions for families, for as Lucy points out in the introduction of her book while a lack of advice and representation shouldn't affect the outcome of a case, it sometimes does.
Lucy and Bath Publishing’s generous donation to the Unit will greatly assist us to ensure that at least some of those individuals facing complex family issues can do so with the help of a barrister. But the truth is that in the coming years an ever growing number of individuals will attend court as litigants in person. Family Judges across England and Wales should be grateful that at least some of these will be coming armed with Lucy’s invaluable guide. Similarly, for those parents attempting to navigate the family law system as litigants in person, Family Courts without a Lawyer will be worth its weight in gold.