‘We need to change things in family courts. I learned I was not eligible for Legal Aid because my husband had not physically abused me and I apparently had money… because I managed to take a mortgage and borrow from the value of my asset. My house. Every day my daughters and I are eating the bricks of my house.’
Goranka has been married for 22 years, sacrificing her own professional life for her family and her husband’s career. When he left, the court ordered him to pay to her spousal maintenance. He paid only 5 months, and then he stopped. Since then Goranka has been representing herself in court – having spent all the money she had on the first trial – as she was not entitled to receive any Legal Aid.
‘I was married for 22 years to a very successful man who worked in finance. I was a homemaker; mostly due to the fact we were moving to countries where I had no work permit. Although I am university educated and had jobs before marriage, I gave that up for the benefit of the family. In 2009, my husband got a promotion with the same company and we were to move to New York. Suddenly he started changing. I confronted him and he said there was somebody else and he said he was leaving the family. I learnt I was not eligible for legal aid because my husband had not physically abused me. The Citizens Advice Bureau only gives you three visits to get the advice. You can’t get more and you have an hour each time. We need to change things in family courts.’
What does Legal Aid for civil cases look like in the UK?
Legal Aid can help meet the costs of legal advice, family mediation, and representation in a court or tribunal. Since Legal Aid was first introduced in the ‘Legal Aid and Advice Act’ of 1949 there have been need-based restrictions, ensuring it goes only to those who are deemed unable to pay for legal representation themselves. The current threshold to receive Legal Aid in civil cases is £8000 of disposable capital which can be money in the bank, valuable items or the value of your home (this depends on how much the property is worth and how much your mortgage is). There are also restrictions on what types of non-criminal cases allow you to qualify for Legal Aid. In the case of family law, Legal Aid is provided for family mediation, victims of domestic violence, or for cases where children are at risk of abuse. An individual’s financial situation isn’t taken into account for cases about mental health tribunals, children in care, and child abduction.
What are the issues with Legal Aid in its current form?
Critics believe that the current system of financial aid leaves many vulnerable to being priced out of the justice system due to the myriad of restrictions and the rigid rules that apply to Legal Aid. The system has been criticized for its rigid approach to complex cases that allow those who are genuinely in need to fall through the gaps and miss out on gaining critical legal representation. Victims of financial abuse are not permitted to receive Legal Aid despite the nature of the case they’re bringing forward. It is because of cases like this and various other cases of differing natures that campaigners are calling for a more comprehensive approach to Legal Aid.
Further to this, the coalition government’s 2013 Legal Aid reforms have added to critic’s claims that people, in particular women, are being priced out of justice. New restrictions on who is able to access Legal Aid have been imposed and the amount of cases it is available for have been limited. Under new guidelines, victims of domestic abuse must provide proof of abuse before they are granted Legal Aid, putting some of the most vulnerable women in society at risk of being trapped in abusive marriages. Critics suggest that instead of improving Legal Aid, the government have worked to reduce its impact and left many with nowhere to turn.