A SWINDON solicitor who specialises in family law has warned that forthcoming cuts to legal aid will place the vulnerable at risk, particularly women and children.
Andrew Kingston also said it will lead to an increase in people representing themselves and clogging up the court system – resulting in couples having to wait longer for their family dispute to be resolved.
From April 2013, legal aid will no longer be available for divorce, financial disputes and disputes in relation to children, except in cases where domestic abuse is involved.
Mr Kingston, a family lawyer with Swindon firm Charles Lucas And Marshall, says once legal aid is removed from family cases, it will particularly affect women who have little or no income if they are caring for children.
"They will not be able to afford legal advice compared to their working husband or partner, placing them at a disadvantage,” he said.
“This will lead inevitably to more couples representing themselves in court. “This always slows down the legal process."
Cases involving domestic abuse will still get funding under legal aid but, while Mr Kingston welcomed this move, he warned of unintended consequences.
“It could lead to some people making unfounded allegations in order to obtain legal aid, and that fathers, in particular will not be able to fight to see their children,” he said.
However, as well as violence there may be other concerns, such as alcohol or drug misuse within a family, the lawyer said.
These issues may never reach the surface because they are not in the public domain.
"One person in the relationship is aware there is a problem but cannot afford to contest the matter," Mr Kingston said.
"They may give in, which could lead to children being exposed to risk of harm.
"Yet if the case was to go to court, there are simple tests available to check for alcohol or drug misuse and the court can ask for thorough risk and psychological assessments to be conducted. “Previously the costs of these would have been covered by legal aid – but how will these costs be met now?"
Mr Kingston is a member of Resolution, a national organisation of family lawyers who are committed to conducting family disputes in a constructive and non-confrontational manner.
"Although the aim should always be to keep family disputes out of court, there are going to be cases where court intervention is in the best interests of children and one or both of the parents,” he said.
“There are many cases where legal aid is a genuine need and many couples will soon be denied access to it.
“The fallout could lead to social and economic problems which far outweigh the savings the Government is attempting to make from the legal aid budget.”