What next for Legal Aid?
Family mediators who have a Legal Aid contract have just had their contracts renewed, but only for 12 months and again with no indication of the government’s long-term future plans. This short-term approach of 12-month contracts is leaving mediators feeling uncertain and apprehensive about what is to come.
For many years there has been acute criticism of the Legal Aid Agency. Shockingly rates have not increased since 1997 and with costs of living increasing, mediators have struggled to provide their services within the budget. Subsequently many providers have self-terminated their contracts whilst others have subsidised the underfunded system via their private clients. Additionally, there are the costs of annual audits and Legal Aid supervisor fees. One of the annoyances held by contract holders is the Legal Aid Agency’s clear reluctance to embrace technology, such as digital signatures on forms and a hesitancy about online mediation and supervision sessions, which has caused increased the financial stress. All in all, being a Legal Aid provider has been a constant challenge.
The Voucher Scheme
In 2021 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) with the Family Mediation Council (FMC) launched the Family Mediation Voucher Scheme for child cases by giving it one million pounds. This was done without consultation of the profession as a whole and was a genuine surprise – quite an irony as communication is central to mediation.
The voucher scheme gives families a one-off payment of £500 to spend on a child related mediation case. There is no means testing, so it is a scheme that is easy to administer by both the Family Mediation Council and mediators. Mediators are also allowed to set their own prices, which has got away from the long-held complaint that mediators are poorly paid for their services. The initial one million pounds was spent and the MoJ has continued to fund the scheme. The question is why? The public message is that the MoJ wanted to reduce the pressure on the family courts during the pandemic, but this is open to discussion and it thought by many mediators this is ultimately an exit strategy for Legal Aid funded family mediation, especially in view of the uncertainty of contract renewals.
Whilst the new scheme has generally been welcomed by the public and family mediators, it cannot be denied that it is strange that the government has two streams of funding for family mediation. In view of these circumstances, is it unreasonable to predict that the new scheme may soon fully take over?
There are a number of questions to be asked, such as how are quality standards being monitored within the new system? Over a million pounds of public funding has been spent and no audits have yet been carried out on the mediators taking part in this scheme. In reality, mediators could be billing the scheme the full £500 where that amount of mediation has not taken place. The only document that shows how much mediation took place is the form completed by the mediator themselves. The system predominantly relies on the candour of the professionals involved. This is not to say that mediators are dishonest abusers of a system, but we do not live in Utopia. In the real world, the system clearly seems open to abuse due to a lack of scrutiny and accountability. As mentioned, mediators can set their own fees within this scheme, so the public have understandably become conscious of mediators’ hourly rates or finding the best deal. It has also been asked as to what experience the FMC has in administering such a scheme and to reliably collect data to show the effectiveness of the scheme. In short, the answer is none.
It appears the voucher scheme could become the government’s new panacea for all family issues; but what about financial cases? With the voucher scheme being confined to child arrangement cases only, what redress do separating couples have in disputing over their home, debts, pensions, or otherwise? Currently Legal Aid supports families or individuals on low incomes or specific benefits to find a solution. Hopefully in the grand plan, these families are not abandoned and left to muddle through by themselves.
Future funding for family mediation
Ostensibly, the future seems bright. The sector seems to have mediators welcoming the new system despite a concerning lack of long-term planning or clear vision, which begs the question: Is this the government making a quick saving by removing further support for our most vulnerable families? Further questions arise, such as how are the initial separate meetings going to be funded (Mediation Information & Assessment Meetings), as the voucher scheme currently does not cater for this? What happens if separating couples need to return to mediation (the voucher is a one-time use)? What happens if the mediation voucher does not cover the whole cost of mediation, especially in complex cases? These questions must be addressed if Legal Aid is to cease to exist.
All we can hope is that we are not witnessing a situation of the emperor’s new clothes where many will be left out in the cold!
Want to known more about Legal Aid for family mediation?
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Frequently Asked Questions
Can I get Legal Aid still for family mediation?
Many people think that Legal Aid finished years ago, but family mediation still remains funded for people on specific benefits, such as Universal Credit, or on a low income.
What is a low income for Legal Aid?
It is impossible to give an exact answer, as many things are taken into consideration such as mortgage/rent, child maintenance payments, number of children, equity in properties. The list goes on. An application does not cost anything, so if you are in doubt, then apply!
How quickly will I know if I can get Legal Aid?
Normally, it takes about one week, but it can be less depending on the numbers of people applying. January is a very business month, so you may have to wait the whole week.
Do you have to pay Legal Aid back?
Legal Aid for family mediation, you do not need to pay back.
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