11:11, October 13 58 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-13 11:11:03
Senior judge warns over 'shaming' impact of legal aid cuts

One of the most senior family court judges has warned about the impact of legal aid cuts and said it was “shaming” to preside over cases in which individuals are forced to represent themselves.

Speaking at a ceremony to mark his retirement, Mr Justice Bodey explained how he sometimes had to help litigants in person by cross-examining witnesses on their behalf.

His comments highlight dismay among the judiciary about the Ministry of Justice’s slow progress towards reviewing the effect of the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act.

The legislation removed more than £350m from the legal aid budget and ended the right to legal representation in large areas of the law on divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, welfare, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefit and education.

Last year, Amnesty International said the cuts were far worse than anticipated and had created a “two-tier” system that denied the poorest people access to justice.

The family courts have the worst-affected part of the justice system. More than a third of family cases involve litigants who are unrepresented on both sides.

Last week, the new president of the supreme court, Lady Justice Hale, described Laspo cuts as probably “a false economy”. She said early legal advice would help resolve many legal problems.

A Labour party-backed review led by Lord Bach published last month called for an additional £400m a year to be spent restoring access to a more generous system of legal aid.

“When the government first introduced Laspo it estimated it would save £450m a year in today’s prices,” Bach’s report said. Last year, legal aid spending was £950m less than in 2010.

At a conference organised by law reform and human rights organisation Justice on Thursday, Lady Justice Hallett, one of the most senior court of appeal judges, said cuts to legal aid had created a “huge burden” on judges, lawyers and litigants themselves. She did not welcome having to “descend into the arena” of the dispute, she added, because there was a temptation to become a litigant’s advocate.

Bodey, who has been based in the family division of the high court in London for 18 years, said more people had been forced to represent themselves at hearings he had overseen in recent years, and they did not have the required knowledge or skills.

The judge said he had felt “first hand” their frustration and he had sometimes had to act as their counsel and ask questions on their behalf.

He told his audience, which included Sir James Munby, the most senior family court judge in England and Wales: “I find it shaming that in this country, with its fine record of justice and fairness, that I should be presiding over such cases.”

The government’s own statistics show spending on legal aid has fallen sharply from £2.6bn in 2005-06 to £1.5bn last year. The steepest decline came after 2013 when Laspo came into effect.

The Ministry of Justice is due to review the impact of Laspo but is not expected to report until next spring. There has also been widespread criticism of the cuts by the National Audit Office, other senior judges, parliamentary select committees and campaign groups.

Responding to the the Bach report last month, the justice minister, Dominic Raab, said the ministry spent £1.6bn on legal aid last year – a quarter of its budget.

“We will continue to focus legal aid on those who most need help, recognising the cost of this support is met by the taxpayer, even as Labour produce yet more unfunded proposals,” he said.