Legal aid implications for prospective family law barristers

01 Jul 2013 | 3 min read

I wish to become a family law barrister. I am currently on the path for pupillage but I have heard many opinions from barristers who have urged me to be aware of the current challenges that I would face. I’m aware that becoming a barrister is difficult, particularly in areas of law that are under threat and criminal law is not isolated on this front, family law also falls under this category. I am determined, but I must also acknowledge the current difficulties and problems.

Legal aid changes

As from 1 April 2013 the availability of legal aid for many family law disputes is essentially non-existent eg in divorce or private law matters concerning children except in very limited circumstances (such as where there has been domestic violence). The Law Society has estimated that as a result of the changes 200,000 cases will no longer qualify for legal aid when compared with 2012. This is a huge number when taking into account the role that family law plays in safeguarding children, relationships and in ensuring that justice is secured. Inevitably the changes will cause high levels of injustice.

Making a difference

It is apparent that as a result of the legal aid changes, the most vulnerable have become even more vulnerable. Family law disputes can be highly emotional and clients therefore often have a huge emotional investment in their case. This is one of the reasons why I am attracted to family law as a prospective barrister – I wish to assist those who require help and I aspire to make a positive difference to people’s lives. However, the legal aid changes may cause many individuals who require assistance to miss out, simply because they cannot afford to pay for any legal assistance in the first place, thereby ensuring that the law is effectively inaccessible for them. The fact is that some people may take the law into their own hands, particularly in matters which focus on the welfare and general well-being of children. The government has long encouraged the use of mediation as an alternative to the court process, however it has been reported that because of the unavailability of legal aid, many individuals are no longer seeing a solicitor in the first place and a consequence of this is that they are not made aware of the options that are available for them.

A flexible approach

One thing that I have learnt, particularly from my mini-pupillages is that I must remain flexible – I must not feel obliged to only undertake publicly funded work, but I must appreciate the importance of privately funded family law work.

The legal aid cuts to family law pose a massive challenge for prospective family law barristers and for solicitors who undertake publicly funded work. If firms and chambers are not receiving as much work as they did last year, there will be fewer training contracts and pupillages on offer. A barrister once told me “the legal aid cuts are going to kill the family law barrister’s profession”. I hope not! Only time will tell, but I suspect that the full force and impact of legal aid cuts to family law has yet to be felt.

Mani Singh Basi graduated with first class honours, an aspiring barrister, he is currently studying for an LLM at Nottingham Law School

Twitter: @MSBasi17


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