Radical reforms to family law services in 2014 mean fresh challenges for family lawyers and numerous difficulties for parents and couples.
Family lawyers have already had to cope with huge changes in 2013, including the withdrawal of public funding (legal aid) for most family law cases and the closure of several local courts.
Although, family law firms have risen to these challenges – for example by launching competitive fixed fee services – Emma Pearmaine, Head of Family Law at Simpson Millar LLP fears some clients may be hard hit by the fresh wave of reforms.
“From April 2014 the single Family Court will become a national court for all family proceedings in England and Wales. This means local jurisdictional boundaries will disappear and proceedings will be issued by the Family Court rather than by the County Court or Family Proceedings Court,” said Emma.
Simpson Millar LLP has traditionally preferred to operate in the County Court because local district judges take a more efficient approach. This has become more and more of a consideration since the legal aid cut backs and the development of fixed fee private services.
“One of the big worries is the on-going closure of smaller local courts, and restricted opening hours for the court counter,” said Emma. “Solicitors in areas hit by court closure are reporting that their clients cannot afford to travel long distances, and failure to attend hearings is causing more expense and delay.”
In addition, restricted counter services mean clients are further cut off from a source of help and advice. Emma and her team are also aware that court staff are increasingly concerned about safety, because of frustrated litigants.
Legal Aid reforms in the single family court have further implications for family lawyers and their clients.
“It is proposed that family Legal Aid fee levels should be linked to the level of judge allocated to the case, rather than the tier of the court, as there will only be 2 tiers of court but 4 levels of judges – lay bench, district judge, circuit judge and High Court judge,” explained Emma.
“There is worrying uncertainty about how will this affect which level of judge our cases are allocated to. We expect our Designated Family Centre will be under pressure to keep the legal aid bill down, and this raises genuine concerns that our cases might not initially be allocated to the correct level of judge.”
Nonetheless, Emma remains upbeat about prospects for 2014 – provided family lawyers are willing to fight for what they believe in.
“Change is inevitable, and not always a bad thing. It is important to adapt where sensible, and shout out when it is important to make a stand,” said Emma.
“At Simpson Millar LLP we represent many trade union members which might be why lobbying for people’s rights comes naturally to us.”