I have been sent a copy of the letter in which the president of the High Court Family Division tells the body responsible for administering legal aid of the "grave danger" that the family justice system "will simply implode" because of the way contracts for child-care cases have been awarded. Brief extracts were published in the Sunday Telegraph today.
Since Sir Nicholas Wall circulated copies of his letter to all family judges, he cannot have been very surprised (or, I suspect, disappointed) that it was leaked.
This is the full text of what he told Carolyn Downs, chief executive of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), on July 29:
I have been inundated (not too strong a word) with expressions of serious concern from judges about the LSC's awards of fresh contracts in publicly funded child and family work. I cite but one example: -
Solicitors providing family law services had to apply to the LSC for fresh contracts and the results became known last Friday. I have been approached by well respected practitioners in the family law field who are shattered to find that they have been turned down. I have been told of 10 local firms (in Cardiff and Newport) whose contracts expire on 14th October after which they cannot take further legal aid family work. All 10 are firms that are the mainstay of the administration of family justice in this area, staffed by experienced and reliable practitioners who are able to process the work competently and efficiently. Some of them do nothing but family work. I have also been told of 3 firms that have been awarded contracts and they are, by contrast, firms that do little or none of the heavy care work (for example) and it is difficult to see how they could possibly cope with what will be a deluge of work. The result is that this area will be grossly under-supplied with firms to support an overall population approaching one million...
Quite apart from the horrendous prospect of inexperienced practitioners taking over this heavy work and being inundated with work that would previously have been distributed among many more firms, with the resulting delays, there is the prospect of far more litigants in person as there simply will not be enough firms around to cope with the multi-party cases that we commonly experience in the heavier care cases.
Plainly neither my office nor myself is in a position to comment on individual cases. However, I trust the reaction of my Designated Family Judges and other members of the judiciary who have direct experience of the firms in their areas who undertake this difficult and vitally important work.
I have sent a message to all my Designated Family Judges (to whom I am also copying this letter) expressing my confidence in their ability to deal with individual complaints from solicitors and others for support appropriately. I am thus sure that in supporting individual appeals they will not cross the line between matters which are appropriate for them to comment upon and those which are for the Commission alone.
At the same time I make the point to you as strongly as I can - and invite you to make it known more widely, that my judges know what they are talking about. They 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 litigants in person, and there is a grave danger that the system will simply implode.
Joshua Rozenberg is an independent legal commentator who presents Law in Action on BBC Radio 4.
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