Poorer families to lose access to law

Catherine McGregor

Catherine McGregor

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A family lawyer working in Spalding has warned that drastic cuts to publicly funded legal aid will have an ‘horrendous’ effect on men, women and children where relationships have broken down.

From April 1, legal aid for all divorce cases and most disputes over children and finances will be stopped as part of a bid to cut the current £2billion bill.

As a result, Lincoln firm Sills and Betteridge Solicitors is shutting down its Spalding family law office which dealt almost exclusively with low-income families on legal aid.

Family law specialist Catherine McGregor, of Maples Solicitors in Spalding, said: “I’m really shocked at how restrictive the new requirements are – the impact on children in particular in our poorest families is going to be horrendous.

“Currently where relationships have broken down and the couple are disputing finances or what will happen about the children, solicitors for both parties negotiate and in 99 out of 100 cases it’s resolved without judicial intervention.

“Forced to represent themselves, the parties will have no recourse but to a judge – and if they can’t raise the money to go to law without legal aid, the situation will continue.

“The only way to get legal aid will be if violence or abuse is alleged. A woman suffering domestic violence or fearing her children are at risk from her partner will now have to produce the most precise evidence which she won’t have, to get legal aid.

“Access to a solicitor early on can prevent abusive situations developing further.”

In Spalding the only remaining legal firms which still have legal aid franchises for civil, family or criminal law will be cut to just four with the loss of Sills and Betteridge on March 31.

The firm’s managing partner John Mitchell said: “Unfortunately we can’t justify keeping an office open in Spalding to deal with family work which has been almost entirely legal-aided.”

Legal aid for criminal cases has already been reduced by the introduction of stringent means testing, with more cuts in the offing, and most Spalding legal firms have no further dealings with criminal law.

Solicitor Mike Alexander of Criminal Defence Associates fears that poorer defendants from South Holland will be doubly denied access to justice, as Spalding Magistrates Court where he represents legally aided defendants will inevitably be closed, and distances to other courts will make it impossible.

He said: “Legal aid costs have stayed the same since 1993 . I’m not whingeing about money – I love the job – but I get less than a fifth on legal aid what a fellow lawyer gets paid by a client.

“I un derstand cuts must be made but that shouldn’t mean abandoning fairness.”