Family law bar 'close to breaking point'

09 MAR 2009

Family barristers are being driven away from their work as a result of repeated cuts in legal aid pay, a new report published today says.

The study, commissioned by the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA) and complied by Dr Debora Price and Anne Laybourne of King's College London's King's Institute for the Study of Public Policy, finds that specialist family lawyers are deserting family legal aid work, which has been the subject of repeated cost-cutting measures.

At a meeting in London last Wednesday to launch the report, family barristers reported that the profession was close to 'breaking point' as it struggles to cope with increasingly complex caseloads and demoralising cuts in pay.

In December the government unexpectedly revealed proposals to cut family legal aid in some cases by as much as 55%, having previously indicated that the cuts would be 13% to 14%.

The report shows how a career as a family law barrister involves long hours and working weekends. Half of family barristers work more than 46 hours in a given week, with a quarter working more than 56 hours, one in twenty working more than 70 hours, and one per cent working more than 83 hours. In addition to this 87% say that their weekends are often or always disrupted.

In return family barristers earn a relatively modest professional income compared to similarly qualified jobs; a quarter of them earn less than £44,000 a year, and half less than £66,000 a year.

As a result, in the event of the proposed legal aid cuts going ahead, over 80% of family barristers said they intend to change their practices. Forty per cent of barristers over 16 years call intend to stop totally or reduce greatly the amount of legally aided public law final hearings that they undertake.

One family barrister with seven years call who contacted Newswatch said that she would not be able to return to the family bar after her maternity leave as the proposed government cuts in fees meant she would not be able to pay for child nursery care.

On Saturday over 300 family barristers gathered at short notice to protest in London, with over 250 joining over video-links from 12 centres around the country. At the meeting the FLBA passed a resolution protesting at the government's proposed cuts.

The FLBA and the Bar Council are now set to implement a major lobbying campaign to highlight the flaws and risks inherent in the government's approach to supporting proper legal advice in child protection cases.

Desmond Browne QC, the Chairman of the Bar Council, who attended Saturday's protest said: 'Up and down the country barristers have made it clear that they are being prevented from providing the service their clients need and which they came into the profession to give by cut after cut to the legal aid budget. It is extraordinary that this is being done in the year in which the Legal Services Commission says it is "celebrating" the 60th anniversary of legal aid.'

The Ministry of Justice and the Legal Survives Commission says the cost of family legal aid is now £26m per year higher than it was five years ago - rising by over 30% from £74m to nearly £100m. Payments to family barristers now represent 10% of the entire civil legal aid budget.

However, in an interview with Newswatch to be published later this week, Lucy Theis, Chairman of the FLBA, reveals that the LSC failed to maintain ongoing six month reviews on family legal aid fees set up with the FLBA in 2005. She says the current budget crisis is a result of the LSC failing to review the legal aid budget on an ongoing basis and general mismanagement.

'The trouble is that they only lurch from one sort of crisis to another and so instead of properly monitoring the situation from 2005 when the last changes were made, we're left in the situation we're now in,' Theis told Newswatch.

After Saturday's protest meeting, Theis announced the FLBA's intention to increase their campaign. 'We will take this issue to Parliament in a major lobbying campaign designed to flag up the flaws and risks inherent in the government's current approach to funding legal support in children protection cases, at a time when public concern is at its height', she said.

The 'week in the life' study, The Work of the Family Bar, examined in detail over 5,000 cases being undertaken by more than 1,600 barristers in the third week of October 2008.

Family law barristers and other interested practitioners who wish to express their opinion on this issue can do so by responding to the LSC's consultation, Family Legal Aid Funding from 2010, which opened on 17 December 2008 and now closes at midnight on Friday 3 April (extended from 18 March). Practitioners can respond to this consultation online by clicking here.

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