Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

Memorandum submitted by Henry Hyams Solicitors , Leeds (LA 113)

Purpose of paper

1. This submission focuses on the likely impact of the proposed cuts in civil legal aid on the people of Leeds .

Background

2. Henry Hyams pr ovide s both social welfare law and family law services to the people of Leeds . We are members of Advice Leeds , a city-wide network of over 30 organis ations whose aim is to ‘improve well-being, the reduction of poverty and social exclusion in Leeds . Since November 2010 Henry Hyams has been in a consortium partnership with Leeds Citizens Advice Bureau and Leeds Law Centre to deliver social welfare law (housing, debt and welfare benefits) advice and representation to the people of Leeds .

3. In all, under legal aid funding , we currently offer legal services to over 2,000 citizens of Leeds (and their families) each year. The proposed cuts will decimate these services.

Evidence

4. We know that th ose we help are some of the poorest and most vulnerable p eople in Leeds . Analysis by Leeds City Council in September 2011 shows that up to 65% of clients seen by Henry Hyams live in areas of Leeds identified as falling within the 10% of most deprived ‘Super Output Areas’ (SOAs) in the country. SOA measures of deprivation include: income, employment, health, education, barriers to housing and services, living environment and crime. Child Poverty is at 41% in Leeds Central area. Research published in May 2011 by Leeds City Council on financial exclusion in the city shows that many more people are likely to need advice and assistance with one in four households surveyed affected by redundancy, reduced hours or pay cuts within the previous 12 months.

5 . MPs and Councillors in Leeds will already be aware of the increasing numbers of people seeking their help , often with ‘clusters’ of problems . The propos ed cuts will mean that that there will be far less support available for casework in future.

6. Of particular concern in family cases are those involving domestic v iolence. The proposal in the Bill is that legal a id is only provided where there is ‘objective evidence’ in the form of a criminal conviction or finding of fact hearing within the last 12 months, or that the case has been taken up through Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference . We know that many of our clients greatly fear the consequences of taking such action s which may aggravate the perpetrator’s behaviour further and seriously endanger thems e lves and their children . We believe that the evidence of domestic violence and child abuse should also be taken from medical practitioners, social services and support workers. As proposed, the Bill will deny help to many victims and , based on our clients, will lead to an increase in the numbers of vulnerable children in Leeds without any assistance through legal a id creating a serious risk that many children will lose contact with one of their parents or be subjected to unfair financial arrangements that may harm their upbringing and wellbeing.

7 . A further concern is the proposal that m ediation will be suitable for every case. We know from our lengthy experience with many clients in Leeds that it simply will not work in all cases. Where there are mental or physical health problems, where one of the pare nts, with implacable hostility, refuses any contact between the children and the other parent, where the child’s views are ignored by parents, mediation is very unlikely to work and the children’s welfare during residence and contact disputes will be at serious risk due to the delays before a legal outcome is reached.

8. Further, regarding financial matters on divorce where mediation is unsuitable or unsuccessful we have concerns about no access to legal help on urgent finance issues. There will be no legal aid available for advice or action to prevent dissipation of assets, despite potentially serious consequences such as loss of the matrimonial home and dependence on public housing. This affects women and children disproportionally in our experience.

9. Other types of cases where the people of Leeds will be unable to access legal help (unless they can afford to pay) are: one parent worried that the other parent will abduct their child to an unknown destination in the UK; cohabitants where one partner needs help to claim a share of the family home for themselves and their children; parents in private children cases where the court considers the case has an element justifying separate representation of their child; people who need legal help to sort out their finances when divorcing, even on an emergency basis unsuitable for mediation.

10. Nearly 50% of our family clients are men. Men wanting contact with, and access to, their children where the relationship with the mother has completely broken down. The proposed cuts will mean that legal aid funding is no longer available for this type of case. A likely consequence of this is that more children in Leeds will grow up with no contact with their fathers.

Conclusion and recommendations

11. In conclusion, the people we provide services to are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in Leeds. The likely impact of removing these legal services is that they will find it almost impossible to access justice resulting in increased disadvantage. It appears inevitable, given the demographics of the public we serve, that they are likely to end up being a greater burden on the public purse in their need for housing, community services, and other local authority and health services. We urge the Public Bill Committee to reconsider:

  The degree of disadvantage and wider effects of the proposed cuts

  Redefining the domestic violence proposals to ensure that all victims can access legal advice for early intervention

  Making legal aid available for representation in cases where a competent mediator determines that mediation simply will not work

  Making legal aid available for collaborative family law recognizing the success of this approach in avoiding the need for lengthy court proceedings

  Making legal aid available to obtain an emergency order to prevent the abduction of a child within the UK

  Making legal aid available so people can secure legal representation in finance proceedings where one party is significantly disadvantaged

Case Study A

Our client (A) has lived in Leeds for over 20 years. Her husband, with whom she has 5 children, was violent and abusive throughout their relationship. She finally plucked up the courage to end the marriage and her then husband left the matrimonial home (which was held in the joint names of him and his father). But before doing so he transferred his interest in the matrimonial home to his father. After the property transfer A was ejected from the house with the 5 children. A, who had been a full-time wife and mother, had no funds to mount a legal challenge. With legal aid funding action was taken on her behalf through the courts resulting in the property being put back into the ‘matrimonial pot’. This allowed A to secure the release of funds to re-house herself and her children. Without this A would have had no alternative but to depend on state benefits and public housing. The cost to the public purse would have been much greater.

Case Study B

Our Client (B), now in her late 60s, has lived in Leeds all her life. Following her husband’s aggressive behaviour over a number of years her mental health deteriorated and B was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. With legal aid funding we were able to apply for non-molestation and occupation Orders so that she could eventually return to her home without fear. Without legal advice B would have been unable to obtain the assistance and protection she needed.

Case Study C

Our client (C), from central Leeds, was faced with a complete loss of contact with his young children after his relationship broke down. Sadly, the children’s mother had taken up with a new partner who was subjecting both the children and the children’s mother to domestic abuse. Under the Bill’s proposals no legal aid would be available to C to take action to protect his children.

October 2011

Prepared 14th October 2011