The proposed changes to the provision of legal aid under the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill will result in the abolition of free legal advice for couples contemplating divorce.
The effect of this change in law will mean that the cost of getting a divorce will inevitably increase, and could mean that poorer spouses will struggle to get the expert legal advice they need to contest a hearing.
The threat has prompted the most senior family-law judge in England and Wales, Sir Nicholas Wall, to predict a 'substantial increase' in the number of spouses representing themselves in court in future.
"What worries me are the smaller cases where there is no representation, where, for example, there is a serious imbalance between an impoverished wife and a better-off husband," said Sir Wall in an address to the annual conference of family lawyers' group Resolution.
"The difficulty is compounded if neither side receives sensible advice," he added.
The changes to the provision of legal aid are set to have their final hearing in the commons this week, after the Lords inflicted some 11 defeats on the Government. However, opponents fear that the coalition may attempt to force the bill through the commons, ignoring the Lords amendments.
The threat of the changes has prompted a broad coalition of charities, celebrities and Liberal Democrat supporters to write an open letter to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, asking him to intervene to have the bill amended. The group includes charities Shelter and Scope, as well as celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Bianca Jagger and Michael Sheen.
The proposed legal changes will attempt to cut some £350m from the public legal aid bill by removing sections of law from public funding. Nearly all family law advice will be removed.
At present if there is any disparity between spouses in a divorce the poorer spouse can receive comparable legal advice with state support. Now this will only be available in cases featuring domestic abuse.
Priya Palanivel is a family law solicitor who is concerned about the new legislation.
"It is not child-focused, nor is it family-focused. Practitioners are pulling their hair out about what they're going to do. The whole bill flies in the face of an 'access to justice' ethos," she said.
Read more on the story (The Guardian)
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