“If they had not had legal aid, they’d be dead”, asserted Ruth Bond, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, when explaining the problems of physically abused women at the second Bar Debate, “Broken Britain, broken families: What next?” held in the Large Pension Room at Gray’s Inn on 16 November. It was an opportunity for the panel to put forward matters on which they felt strongly.
John Coughlan, CBE, Director of Children’s Services for Hampshire County Council and a member of the Family Justice Review Panel, summarised the report’s recommendations. He deplored delays in children’s cases - over one year and rising while the court “searched for certainty” they won’t get. Too many people go to court and yet “children and adults feel unheard”. “It isn’t a system at all” but what system there is has “significant waste and inefficiency”.
No one else agreed that the courts were being over-used. Stephen Cobb QC, Chair of the Family Law Bar Association, thought instead that a significant number of private law cases required the scrutiny of the courts, considering how many parents took drugs, had mental health issues, and split up after five years. However he predicted that the courts will soon be populated by litigants in person, causing more delay. Ms. Bond, whose organisation has worked hard to raise awareness of violence towards women said that abused women “do not feel safe taking part in mediation” To them “legal aid is a life line”.
“My starting point” is that “for the most part, Britain is not broken” and “families generally are a good place to be”, stated Dr. Maggie Atkinson, The Children’s Commissioner. She felt that the system must “take greater notice of the views of children”. She reiterated later, “children tell us that they can and should be listened to as agents in their own rights”.
In reply to a question, Mr. Coughlan described his task of running a department which had lost 20 percent of their funding, taking them back in real terms to the situation in 2006. Nevertheless he felt that “we live in relatively benign times” for a welfare system that has to care for children.