Divorce is set to go beyond the financial means of some people in the UK due the recent decision of the government to drastically cut legal aid funding. Gordon Dean solicitors in Norwich are members of the Norwich and Norfolk Law Society, a professional and lobbying body that has lined up against the cuts and warns that “divorce will become simply too expensive for the disadvantaged” to undergo and that access to the justice system generally is threatened by the latest cuts.
We often reach out for the aid of a solicitor at the most challenging moments of our lives, such as when settling an estate, procuring advice or defense in a criminal context or settling commercial and other disputes. It seems solicitors and legal advice are things that accompany the toughest moments of our lives and this is no doubt part of the reason for the negative stereotyping associated with solicitors that we are all familiar with.
It sometimes surprises people that while it is generally unnecessary to engage a lawyer when getting married, it is legally required to do so when a marriage comes to an end. Divorce, like marriage, isn’t cheap, and just as marriage rates fall and weddings become less extravagant during harder economic times, divorce rates also fall in some measure for exactly the same reason. Notwithstanding the economic cycle and expense, divorce remains an extremely widespread phenomenon in modern society, with by some measures as many as 50% of marriages ending in divorce by the time of the child’s 16th birthday.
Emotions are often at their rawest during a divorce and the stress is often compounded by the complex legal and financial questions involved. Even in relatively amicable divorces, the legal process of mediation, arbitration and conflict resolution require a solicitor to prepare the documents, ensure the legality of asset division, make recommendations, and formalize a custody agreement if there are children involved. A solicitor is necessary to draft a Deed of Separation, the official document that voids a marriage, sets out the divorce agreement and makes it legally binding. There is no way to unscramble an egg, but the complex intertwining of finances, family and the termination of the comprehensive legal partnership that marriage represents require comprehensive legal advice to attempt to do just that. Legal advice is also a professional service that both parties must contract individually, making divorce proceedings more expensive still.
If quality of representation is taken out of the legal aid system by cuts then it is the poorest in the community who will bear the brunt, as those of middle or higher incomes can still pay for access to adequate legal services. While these services are predominantly used in criminal contexts, legal aid is also a source of advice and mediation for people involved in civil disputes such as divorce. People seeking divorce who cannot afford solicitor services could potentially find themselves in a situation where being unable to pay for divorce proceedings means falling into the legal black hole of informal separation. This reduction in personal legal autonomy can entail loss of access to finances, homes, children and erect barriers to leaving abusive relationships. The cuts to legal aid represent a real threat to equity of access to the law and, ultimately, access denied is justice denied.