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Family breakdown problems will get worse without legal aid, Citizens Advice report warns

3 November 2011

Most people who need free legal advice on separation, divorce and family breakdown will no longer be able to get it if planned cuts to legal aid go ahead, a new report from Citizens Advice warns today. Those worst affected will be women with dependent children.

Breaking up is never easy* is based on CAB evidence gleaned from helping with 168,000 cases involving separation, divorce, children and child support. It points to a growing advice gap in family law problems and warns mediation cannot take the place of legal advice when families break up.

Findings from a survey* by Citizens Advice and Resolution, the national organisation of family lawyers, of nearly 1,000 such cases found that over half (54 per cent) needed to be referred to a family law solicitor, and over 60 per cent were eligible for legal aid under the current rules.

Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of those seeking advice from a CAB on family issues were women.  Most (83 per cent) were aged between 25 and 54, and more than half (56 per cent) had dependent children.

The research suggests that eight out of ten clients needing help from a family law solicitor and eligible for legal aid under the current rules will no longer qualify if the planned cuts go ahead. It warns that Citizens Advice Bureaux will not be able to fill the gap left by cuts to family legal aid.

The report coincides with publication today of the conclusions of the government’s Family Justice Review.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:

"Every year half a million adults and children are involved in the family justice system, and for a high proportion the CAB is their first port of call for advice on issues involving divorce, separation, child support and child welfare.

"Family problems can be financially and legally complex as well as emotionally charged, and the people we see very often need specialist legal help from family lawyers as well as CAB advice. Our research points to a growing advice gap in relation to family problems. Mediation and other services can offer an alternative to legal aid in some cases, but legal advice and representation, money advice and good quality general advice on family issues are essential to mitigate the worst effects of family breakdown.

"Under current plans, there will be very little chance that people will be able to find free specialist legal advice, and their situations are likely to deteriorate, leading to more public spending when things become so serious that the police or social services get involved.  The government is in danger of replacing a system whereby problems can be solved at an early stage at low cost with one where only expensive legal advice will be available in emergency situations, by which time significant damage will already have been done, especially to children."

She added:

"Our bureau network is almost certain to see an increase in family breakdown enquiries as a result of legal aid changes – an increase which at present we have neither the resources nor expertise to deal with. It’s therefore vital that the relationship between family justice and advice services is strengthened and developed to ensure appropriate expertise in the sector to deal with family breakdown issues. The Family Justice Review provides a real opportunity to bring together dispute resolution with family welfare and money advice to tackle some of the most difficult issues arising from relationship breakdown."

* Breaking up is never easy: Separating families’ advice needs and the future of family justice: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/breaking_up_is_never_easy

Citizens Advice

Notes to editors:

  1. This year the Citizens Advice service celebrates its 75th anniversary. We’ve planned a year of activity running from January to December 2014. Contact the press office on 03000 231 080, or via email at press.office@citizensadvice.org.uk, to find out more.
  2. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local bureaux, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  3. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  4. To find your local bureau in England and Wales, visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk. You can also get advice online at www.adviceguide.org.uk
  5. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers
  6. Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales advised 2.1 million clients on 6.6 million problems from April 2012 to March 2013. For full 2012/2013 service statistics see our quarterly publication Advice trends
  7. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 22,000 trained volunteers, working at over 3,000 service outlets across England and Wales.