Whilst family law may not be viewed as immediately exciting as other areas of law such as crime, it is the one that will affect the most people within society. In 2021, over 113,000 divorces occurred in England and Wales, and many of these will inevitably lead to issues over child custody and personal possessions. It might be expected then that such courts are given priority when it comes to critical legal funding. However, the last ten years have seen a steady decline in family law, with more of us unable to receive the necessary resources. This has triggered a quiet yet significant effect on society, leading us to a situation where those on lower incomes are disproportionately affected and the most disadvantaged children incur the biggest issues.
Whilst this has primarily been the result of austerity measures at the beginning of the 2010s, only 27% of the population could receive aid back in 2007 and it is undeniable that such cuts outlined in the 2013 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act have made this situation considerably worse. This can be seen in the Amnesty report three years later, which stated that “cuts to legal aid have decimated access to justice for thousands of people.” This has affected traditionally disadvantaged groups across multiple scales, from ethnic minorities to those in poorer geographic regions.
The effects seen since the beginning of these cuts have been critical to the continued function of the courts. A 2018 investigation found that the £950m lost in funding has led to people being forced to represent themselves. The importance of civil law in legal aid has been diminished, with almost all family law cases no longer being covered. This has led to many parents being forced to give up the fight for custody of their children, simply because the means to represent their case has fallen through. As of last year, children taken into the custody of their local authorities have seen their cases delayed by almost a year. Even with a reversal in the cuts to legal aid, the damage caused to such families is irreparable, with the system fundamentally failing to give these children the necessary legal protections in what will be a turbulent time in their lives.
I believe this is fundamentally a class issue at heart. Whilst those on lower incomes pay a higher proportion in income tax than some at the very top, they are unable to access the very legal services they assist in paying for. This may lead to a future society where the lines of inequality are not just drawn on the laws themselves, but who can access the right to represent themselves in a court of law. This can only begin to be reversed through the reopening of the 239 courts that have closed since 2010, as well as investments in civil law. There also needs to be an initiative targeting barristers in the field, as many have been turned away from legal aid work due to the poor pay that comes with the work.
There are already signs that help may be on the way. The development of legal technology has proven to be a game-changer in the last few years, and those within the industry have already begun to contemplate its usage. After the peak of COVID, the President of the Family Division has suggested that he aims to move family law to a fully digital platform, which would help to increase productivity and aid in fixing the backlog. Whilst such improvements will be beneficial, the courts will not recover without a concerted effort to bring funding back to prior levels thirteen years ago. Only then will the necessary legal infrastructure be afforded to those who need it most.