Written evidence from FNF Both Parents Matter Cymru
Reg charity no 1134723
- FNF Both Parents Matter Cymru is an independent registered charity established in 2010 whose primary area of activity is in promoting the positive involvement of both parents and the wider family in the lives of the children they care about.
- Our comments are exclusively in relation to Private Family Law matters.
- The charity provides two primary services:
- Both Parents Matter – runs 10 legal advice clinics as part of the Law Works network with volunteer solicitors across the whole of Wales. The charity focuses on the delivery of emotional and practical support and is grateful for the financial contributions made by Tudor Trust, The Law Society, the West Glamorgan Partnership and others in the continuing delivery of services.
- Aegis Domestic Violence service – provides a specialist domestic violence support service for men and signposting for women who have experienced or are at risk of domestic violence and abuse across Wales and England. The service works with solicitors to provide qualifying evidence for men to access Legal Aid for Private Law Family matters. In calendar 2019 the service produced 216 evidence letters and is likely to exceed that figure in 2020. We are grateful to the National Lottery, People’s Postcode Lottery and Neath Port Talbot County Council and others for their financial support.
- If more Legal Aid is the answer, we believe that the Government has asked the wrong question. We wish to see far fewer grants of Legal Aid being made because parents and families have a much clearer idea of ‘what normal looks like’ and so are less likely to require intervention from the Court system. We believe this is only likely to become a reality when and if Government and Senior Judiciary give very clear guidance on the expectations that children can reasonably hold for the continuation of their relationship with both parents and the wider family.
- What we see – particularly exacerbated by Covid – is that ‘possession is 9/10th of the law’. Controlling parents take possession of the child, prevent contact and say ‘If you want to see the child take me to Court!’ The problem is made worse by the prevalence of false, malicious or grossly inflated claims of domestic violence and child abuse on a routine basis.
- These already significant problems are made worse by the lamentable lack of data on Private Law cases at a system wide level. We are aware that Women’s Aid and Cafcass conducted ‘research’ stating that 62% of cases had allegations of abuse. Data shared with our charity by the MoJ indicated that the figure was in reality just under 50%. In any event there is a conflation between ‘allegation’ and ‘fact’ that seemingly has been missed by many commentators and lobbyists. This is further compounded by the lack of any system wide data on Findings of Fact in Private Law that might shed some light on the extent to which false allegations are now endemic in Private Law.
- The prevalence of allegations of abuse in Private Law has been made worse by the lack of any meaningful consequence for perverting the course of justice through making claims that an individual knows to be false.
How LASPO has affected access to justice on the post-implementation review
- We understand that Rights of Women and others have been very successful in lobbying Government to recognise the impact of LASPO on women. However we have been disappointed by the failure to accept and take action to address the disproportionate impact on men that LASPO created. This disproportionate impact was not even picked up in the extensive analysis that took place in the Post-Implementation Review of Part 1 of LASPO.
- Figures obtained directly by our charity from the Legal Aid Agency in 2017 demonstrate the reality:
GRANTS OF LEGAL AID
This is a very significant problem in terms of access to justice for men on low incomes who often face the dilemma of self representing or walking away from a relationship with the children they care about.
Recruitment and retention problems among legal aid professionals;
- Pay is too low - Rates of pay (£54.90 per hour) are 1/3 to ¼ of the rates achieved with private paying clients charge rates to paying clients when accepting Legal Aid work.
- ‘Legal Aid is no longer available’ - We routinely hear from service users that they have been told, by solicitors they have consulted, that Legal Aid is no longer available for Private Law. We presume that this is an indication that some solicitors do not wish to work for the rates of pay offered OR that the individual firm does not hold a Legal Aid contract.
The impact of Covid-19 on legal aid services and clients;
- The 7% decrease in Private Law applications reported in the most recent Family Law statistics quarterly [i] is likely to be an aberration and almost certainly due to the difficulties faced by running a Private law judicial system without face to face hearings.
- An already overstretched Private Law system has now broken irrevocably due to the pressures imposed on it – with Judges telling us that the backlog of cases are greater than ever.
- We are aware of the reviews of remote hearings conducted by Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and share to some extent the view expressed by others that the Family Justice system is doing as well as it can given the circumstances. However, what is required is fundamental review not a ‘sticking plaster’ approach through changes to Legal Aid.
What the challenges are for legal aid over the next decade, what reforms are needed and what can be learnt from elsewhere.
- Legal Aid is a ‘sticking plaster’ for a Private Law system that is fundamentally broken. However we believe that there are both long term and short term actions that are desperately required from Government
- . Increase access to funding - particularly for men to meet the Equality Duty
- Increasing the rates of pay for solicitors and barristers – that have not risen in more than a decade
- Remove the administrative barriers to solicitors engaging with the Legal Aid Agency by simplifying and streamlining the administrative processes.
- Support the principles advocated by the Private Law Advisory Group in their report to the Family Justice Reform and Implementation Group as part of the Family Justice Board – specifically in devising a coherent network of support to parents and families, removing the adversarial nature of current proceedings and tackling the issue of fees / costs on the choices which families make to achieve resolution.
- Examine the international evidence on the improved outcomes for children and families from a legislative presumption of shared care of children.