Legal aid cuts spark child abduction fears
Thursday 27 January 2011 by Catherine Baksi
Leading family solicitors have warned that withdrawing legal aid for private law family cases could lead desperate parents to abduct their children.
Lawyers also predicted that the government’s reforms would prompt people to make false allegations of domestic violence in order to obtain legal aid.
The government’s legal aid green paper, published last November, proposed that family disputes should be resolved by mediation rather than through the courts, unless domestic violence is alleged.
The government’s own impact assessment of the changes acknowledged that the reforms may lead to ‘less fair’ outcomes and ‘increased criminality’ where family disputes escalate, or people use unlawful means to resolve problems.
Jenny Beck, solicitor and co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said the changes would leave people who cannot afford to pay for their own legal representation with no proper access to justice.
She said: ‘Parents unable to get contact with their children or to agree residence issues may feel forced to abduct them, while those anxious that their children may be removed from the jurisdiction may prevent contact.
‘Equally, parents whose children have not been returned after contact visits will be denied the facilities to get their children back.’
She said: ‘The idea that these sorts of issues can be resolved by mediation is naive to the point of [being] ridiculous.’
Beck added that the reforms would also have a wider impact. She said: ‘They will result in a complete breakdown in family relationships. Without the safety net of legal recourse, people will be less inclined to allow contact, and parents, mostly fathers, will needlessly lose all contact with their children.’
Christina Blacklaws, Law Society council member for child care, said she also believed that the reforms may lead parents to abduct their children. She said: ‘These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There will be people on low income with no ability to get legal advice when they are at their most desperate. At the moment lawyers can counsel people out of taking such desperate measures, but that will be removed.’
Law Society president Linda Lee commented: ‘There is a risk that a frustrated parent who can’t see their child, and can’t afford access to the court, will feel the only option open to them is to take the law into their own hands.’
She also voiced concern that granting legal aid only to the victims of domestic violence and not the perpetrator will inadvertently add to the trauma felt by victims, who could face the prospect of being cross-examined by their abuser, who may have no lawyer.
Stephen Cobb QC, chair of the Family Law Bar Association, added that the prospect of being questioned by their abuser in court may deter many victims from pursuing court action.
He also warned that the reforms will motivate parties to make false accusations of domestic violence as the only means of obtaining legal aid funding.