Since the UK's legal aid cuts in 2013, there is no longer free legal advice for people going through divorce or for parents separating regarding child contact arrangements (save for cases involving domestic abuse or violence). This has massively impeded peoples' access to justice at a time when they are often most vulnerable, and in need of help.
More than a third of family cases now involve litigants who are unrepresented on both sides. Not only is it unfair on those that are forced to try to bumble through court proceedings without any legal advice, it also impacts on all other cases that go through the court process, as lots of court time is spent on dealing with erroneous forms filed by litigants in person, and wasted court hearings.
This year, 2018, the Ministry of Justice is conducting a long-awaited review of legal aid and, whilst it is hoped more legal aid will become available, if anything, it is anticipated to be scant.
So, what should we do?
As Tesco says, 'Every little helps', and we are trying to do as many 'littles' as possible, which can sometimes mean a lot. We may work at a top tier law firm, but that doesn't stop us from deploying our knowledge to those that may not be able to afford any sort of level of legal advice, let alone top tier.
So, as well as working extremely hard and passionately for our clients, the associates in the family team at Withers also find time to extend their wisdom and passion to others in the community by getting involved in various pro bono projects.
All of the associates spend a morning or afternoon every couple of months at the Family Citizens Advice Bureau at the Central Family Court on High Holborn. We turn up at either 10am or 2pm, go into a small empty room with a computer, and get ready for three hours of back-to-back meetings. Typically the meetings are 45 minutes, and so you get to see four different clients. You have no idea what advice is required until you are given their form two minutes before the meeting, with a one sentence summary of the reason for the appointment.
Advice sought can vary from helping complete the necessary Court form to progress an application (whether it be an application for divorce, financial remedies, a non-molestation order, or a contact order for children, for example), to giving advice on how to prepare their case for a Court hearing – what to say, and what to do, as they don't have the benefit of a barrister representing them.
Recently, I had a client who had not seen his two young children for over a year, initially of his own volition, but more recently because his ex-wife refused his requests for contact. He did not know his rights, and he did not know what to do. He was desperate to re-build his relationship with his children. I listened to his concerns and objectives, and then informed him of the court's approach and procedure. I advised him that he needed to build up through the various different levels and types of contact, and before the 45 minute session was over, I helped him prepare the necessary form to file at court to re-gain contact if his ex-wife was not amenable to agree his proposed building block approach. That was a particularly constructive meeting, and is an example of the type of issues pro bono lawyers have to deal with in a very short amount of time.
Some of our associates also volunteer after work at the Peckham Citizens Advice Bureau, where you see two clients, each with a 45 minute appointment, regarding family law matters. You usually get notes the day before, meaning you have an opportunity to plan for the meeting, to make it as productive as possible for the client.
Another associate in the team has also recently started volunteering at the Battersea Legal Clinic once a month, after work on a Monday, and helps guide clients in respect of various different issues, such as small money claims, employment issues, and landlord and tenant disputes.
Giving impromptu advice in the Citizens Advice Bureaus is critical to ensuring some of those most in need have access to legal advice for their family. Our hope is that we can help individuals move at least one step closer to achieving their aims. This pro bono work is extremely important to us personally and it can be very rewarding, and many of us wish there were more hours in the day to do more of it!