Cuts to legal aid risking quality of decisions in domestic abuse cases

By Lenore Rice

The former head of family courts in England and Wales, Sir James Munby, has said that cuts to legal aid had led to more people representing themselves, and that the lack of proper legal advice was risking the "quality of decisions and prejudicing cases".

Sir James said that the family courts had effectively become a "lawyer-free zone" as a result of the cuts to legal aid, and that concerns about costs were also causing failure to properly accommodate children in cases where they wished "to see the court, give evidence or meet the judge." He said that "detailed proposals" had been drawn up to address the problem but that it wasn't approved by the minister because it "would all cost too much".

Sir James also criticised how it was still allowed for alleged perpetrators to cross-examine alleged, potentially vulnerable victims in the family courts, a practice not found in other areas of the justice system. He said that the courts were "shamefully" behind in victim support.

 

The quality of decisions in family law cases involving domestic violence has been brought into the spotlight on numerous occasions, and in particular following the death of at least 4 children in the last 5 years at the hands of a parent with a known history of violence. Over 120 MPs wrote to the government calling for an inquiry into how victims of domestic violence were treated in the courts, including how the courts dealt with granting unsupervised contact with a child in cases involving a violent ex-partner. The starting point of the court is that it is in the best interests of a child to have contact with both parents, however in some cases that has led to parents convicted of rape, assault and drug offences being granted contact with their children.

 

The Ministry of Justice said it was looking at making improvements on how domestic abuse cases were handled, including "to access legal aid for victims, separate waiting areas for vulnerable court users, and action to ban abusers from cross-examining their victims". It added that its priority is always the child's welfare.

If you require legal advice from a solicitor in Northern Ireland in respect of a domestic violence or other family law matter contact one of our family law solicitors in Belfast or Bangor by clicking here.