Tories under fire over divorce plans

THE GOVERNMENT has moved to quell fears among family lawyers over the availability of legal aid for parting couples under the divorce White Paper reforms.

Alastair Burt, Social Security Minister, gave reassurances after the document came under fire during the Law Society fringe meeting at the Tory conference in Blackpool last week.

He said legal aid would be available for services other than mediation and public funding would be available for the widely-criticised divorce information sessions.

Hilary Siddle, chair of the Law Society's family law committee, attacked the “half-baked, under-resourced proposals within this White Paper”.

“Legal aid will be available for mediation but will not be there for legal advice and representation, except in very specific circumstances,” she said.

“One party with low or no income and no assets will be sent down the mediation route and the other can choose whether to follow or to take legal advice.”

Among other shortcomings she identified were:

the information sessions proposed in the paper would be public and highly embarrassing to couples;

there is no indication of what help is available over the 12-month reflection period;

the scheme seemed to advocate mediation as a panacea despite a survey showing that the method resolved all issues in only 37 per cent of cases.

Burt said the information sessions would be extremely private and there would be a full range of advice services.

“Legal aid will be available for those couples to whom mediation is not appropriate, including ancillary services.”

After the meeting, Siddle said that the only fresh information was the expansion on the legal aid situation. She urged the Government to think the reforms through properly.

Nigel Shepherd, chair of the Solicitors' Family Law Association, said the proposed 12-month reflection period for couples should be kept flexible to allow some to forgo it if they were committed to divorce.

He added the White Paper plans would be costly to the public purse because there was no “claw back” mechanism to retrieve the cost of legal aid from matrimonial assets.