The family justice system could “implode”, the judge in charge of it has warned, amid expectations nearly half of family legal aid law firms will lose their contract.
In a letter seen by Community Care, Sir Nicholas Wall, the president of the Family Division of the High Court, told the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission (LSC) that he had been "inundated with expressions of serious concern" from judges following a tendering process by the LSC.
It could result in a halving in the number of firms that practise family legal aid work in October when the new contracts start. This would leave just 1,300 firms offering legal aid work to the poorest families, compared with 2,400 now, guardians and lawyers say.
Wall's letter cited examples from judges, detailing experienced local law firms whose contracts will expire in mid-October and firms "that do little or none of the heavy care work" being awarded contracts.
He wrote: "My judges work day in and day out in this field, and the Commission will ignore what they say at its peril. Thus if we end up with an unworkable system, or a system operated by those who are inexperienced and/or do not know fully what they are doing, everyone will lose out.
"The principal losers, of course, will be those whom the system is most designed to protect, namely vulnerable families and children. Cases will take longer, there will be many more [parents representing themselves], and there is a grave danger that the system will simply implode."
Alison Paddle, former chair of guardians' body Nagalro, said the change would affect guardians, who appoint lawyers for children involved in family proceedings.
"It will be harder to appoint good lawyers, which could lead to delays and force families to travel huge distances for legal respresentation. If children can't get legal representation, access to justice will be drastically reduced," she said.
"The people who do legally aided work in family law are very skilled and do some of the most emotionally challenging work supporting vulnerable children and families. I would not expect large law firms that put new solicitors on to these cases to be able to offer the same level of service or expertise."
A spokesperson for the LSC said the tender had been "massively oversubscribed" and that law firms could appeal against it. He said the commission would still be taking on the same volume of work.
In a letter to The Times yesterday, Piers Pressdee QC and Alan Bean, co-chairs of the Association of Lawyers for Children, accused the LSC of having a tendering process "too much to do with box-ticking and procurement dogma and too little to do with child welfare, service quality and client need".
They wrote: "Inexcusably, many of the most experienced children lawyers in the country are set to be excluded from the system just when the need for them is greatest. Unless the government steps in, from October the family justice system, already creaking from years of under-investment, will officially be in complete meltdown."
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