Legal Aid

This is not a post about the proceedings it relates to, or about my life, but as a blog which discusses social policy through the prism of experience, I felt it was important to mark the implications of being one of the last women in the UK to receive legal aid in a matter relating to family. Because the generations of mothers who come after me, have merited no discussion.

Legal aid is not a gift, nor is it free. Ir requires a considerable lump of money towards it each month. If and when any assets enter the equation, it becomes a loan and any money spent using it has to be repaid. Proceedings can rack up costs that eat houses and future financial security of participants. The mire of rules accompanying it, mean If financial circumstances change too dramatically, it can be lost with no chance to get it back because that part of the system is gone. A new parameter on the life of the person in receipt.

For many months the idea that I would be able to access legal advice, never mind someone to act for me, seemed a distant mirage designed to keep me wading through an endless bureaucratic desert.

What the legal aid changes mean, is that up and down the country in family courts, there are women in shoes worn for court, that aren’t really part of their day to day routine, willing their feet to move and take them into a room where they could face losing their children because the system they have to navigate is so overwhelming and over their heads. Litigants in person.

Women who stick out like a sore thumb in the endless, uniformly dressed ballet that is our court system, with papers that don’t resemble the carefully organised legal bundles of solicitors, not part of huddles formed by solicitors and Cafcass workers in stairwells, who usually form the cast. Having applied for orders they barely understand, at considerable cost. Clerks and ushers looking at them with pity or disdain. Mothers who are just trying to escape abuse, or take harm out of their children’s lives or free themselves from the control of someone else. Treated like criminals and made to feel responsible for not being solicitors and made to feel like abuse they have suffered is entirely their fault, and they are inconveniencing a system trying to end it. Or they are lying to get legal aid.

The majority of these women, will be so unprepared for the complexities of a court system that has developed over centuries, that they will lose. Regardless of the merits of their case. Regardless of the needs of their children. Against men who they used to be financially dependent on, financial dependence created by motherhood and protected by the state at all costs.

That financial inequality at the root of why they are there and why they will lose, at the root of why they are so vulnerable they need to approach the courts anyway. Their children will lose and the process they go through while that happens will eat away at childhoods, adjournment by adjournment. Proceedings made lengthy by the inexperience of those participating as courts choke with the extra strain.

Some of these women will be killed, many will be injured, many children will be injured and abused, some will die, and many mothers will just accept or be forced to by accept, by court order, that the lives of them and their children are now fear and control. By political consensus of a dying party system disconnected from their lives deliberately.

I don’t really know how to articulate what it takes to make your feet move, when you know that your ignorance and sheer inexperience in the room you are headed to, could result in a change that could make the life of you and your child into something barely worth living. I know the Children Act 1989 inside out, even if I don’t know the family court system, so I cannot even begin to speak for those women who do not even have that. So I thought I would approach this by describing the system that is more or less gone, the one that by some miracle has allowed me to be one of the last women in the UK to be part of it.

Whenever I have used a solicitor before, I have used that first half hour of free legal advice to decide who I will appoint, or more often than not, that half hour made me understand I did not need legal help at all. Saving everyone a lot of hassle. I have then used a solicitor I have paid for, and we have had a client solicitor relationship, one that is clearly defined and is established as the foundation of justice. They were working for me, to achieve what I needed. The purchase of a house, an agreement for this, a document for that. This is not so in family law.

That free half hour that could save you so much time, money and stress does not exist in family law. To get through the door of a solicitor, to get agreement not that you will get basic legal advice, but that you may apply for the funding that might one day allow it, you have to get your affairs completely in order. 3 months of bank statements, 3 years of accounts, up to date tax return receipts, housing costs, agreements, every last payment in your bank for 3 years that is not accounted for, even to the smallest £20 contribution to tiles from your landlord, a question asked in accusatory tone.  That is just to get through the door and to sit and face a solicitor in their office. They will not even let you in without this.

An hour long appointment where a solicitor is not even allowed to discuss with you the reasons you are there, beyond meeting the requirements of the remainder of the legal aid system. One slip up, one document that can’t be obtained, one figure that cannot be accounted for, even if that figure is less than £20, is a door that won’t open.

Orders within this system are generally not applied for with forethought but as a response to emergencies and crisis involving children, times of severe emotional distress. They are applied for with no legal advice, and if the application was wrong the wrath of  the court is on the applicant. Who should have sought legal advice. Anyone who has sought poor informal legal advice will pay for it.

Every inch of y our life raked over not for the proceedings at hand, but to satisfy the legal aid agency that you are deserving of access to justice. With no access to legal advice until this system has been navigated or until other moneys appear. This is before you get to the argy bargy of the courtroom, and often while that is being navigated with no one to assist.

Legal aid changes did not happen to a perfect system. The system is broken already by constant erosion and imposition of political will and disinterest on it’s labrynthine processes. It is people trapped in that mire and courts crumbling as they strain to accommodate the results. Endless telephone calls, where you are told that your ‘case’ has been passed to someone else, for something else, and they will have to do something before it can be passed to someone else. More letters demanding to know in detail about things you have not thought about in years. Solicitors waiting for your certificate, anxious not to spend money their firm will end up liable for, placing the burden on you demanding to know why things haven’t been done.

Means tests. Tests for the validity of your case. All while childhoods pass, adjournment by adjournment, no legal advice or representation to help those mothers navigate the system. So they stand outside courtrooms willing their feet to move, into rooms where they don’t understand what is happening and can mess it all up for their children, just with that lack of understanding. No legal advice available until that mire has been waded through successfully. Most will not receive legal advice at all now.

A legal aid certificate does not mean you will win or lose, but it means you enter that room with as much chance of justice as the other parties there. I don’t know if this post makes sense, it is writing about a system that doesn’t. From now on, more women willing be willing their feet to move for fear of her own inexperience, without someone to walk in beside them able to navigate that complexity, and make sure their case is heard.