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Legal Aid Cuts and the Effect on Children

Legal Aid Cuts and the Effect on Children

Legal Aid…has helped many people on low incomes and benefits to get the legal help they need.

Legal aid was first introduced after World War II through the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1949. The intention of employing legal aid into the justice system was to ensure those in less fortunate monetary circumstances could gain equal access to justice. This aim has been carried through to the present day. It has helped many people on low incomes and benefits to get the legal help they need.

However, austerity measures have meant that the law on legal aid has changed in an attempt to make a saving of £270 million per year.

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force in April 2013. As a result, the allowance of legal aid has drastically changed. Legal aid will no longer be given in cases related to issues such as divorce, residence of children, personal injury and employment.

The Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, has commented that the coalition government is making the legal system the preserve of the rich. He explains that removing the provision of legal aid means there is no equality in the system and the less fortunate will be unable to get the proper help they need.

The Government release quarterly court statistics on their website and it can be concluded that roughly 4 out of 5 cases may be affected by the changes. In January to March 2013, 76,547 cases were heard. Forty-four per cent of those were divorce cases and 21 per cent were private law cases, such as custody battles.

It is predicted that approximately 600,000 people will be affected by the changes and that children will be the biggest victims of the cuts.

The Effect on Children

The Independent has referred to the situation as ‘traumatising’ for children and states that they could be at risk of ‘acute danger’. The newspaper identified that there could be a spike in angry parents as they are unable to get the funds required to divorce, or put a residence agreement in place. Parental emotional trauma is thought to have a negative effect on children. It is for this reason that various charities, barristers and solicitors are against the cuts.

Stephen Stosny has written a book called Love without Hurt, which addresses the issue of the psychological needs of a child and how emotional circumstances can affect these needs. Stosny believes that where a child lives with a parent suffering a traumatic experience, the child can develop many unfavourable characteristics. The child may lose focus at school, which may result in bad behaviour and a poor education. The child’s self-esteem may decrease, anxiety levels could increase and they could become over or under emotional. This is because they have no settled behavioural pattern to follow which should be influenced by parents. The child may also feel like a burden or that they are unloved because their parents are constantly arguing or displaying feelings of anger or sadness.

Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, has commented that the coalition government is making the legal system the preserve of the rich.

This corresponds with research published within the Journal of Development and Psychopathology from the British Psychological Society (BPS).

Shannon Lipscomb, who is an assistant professor within the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at Oregon State University, also agrees with the research. She believes that children living within a troubled environment are most likely to display behavioural problems at school. She explains this can be derived from a lack of focus and interest that other children are capable of displaying that do not live in troubled environments.

The Oregon Learning Centre also confirms that the most powerful influence on a child is the parental behaviour modelled. This is of particular importance at toddler age. If toddlers witness frustration from one or both of their parents, it is often the result that the toddler will have a tantrum themselves.

The Centre explains that failing to scaffold children leads to a greater frequency of the child becoming troubled beyond comprehension. Children may also experience a lack of discipline, as parents are intertwined with the difficulty of a broken down relationship, as well as having to raise a child.

Stosny believes that where a child lives with a parent suffering a traumatic experience, the child can develop many unfavourable characteristics.

Professor Judy Hutchings OBE, who is a fellow of the BPS and Director of the Centre for Evidence-based Early Intervention at Bangor University, explains these issues can continue through to adult life. It has been found that children living with angry or depressed parents that develop the aforementioned traits are more likely to turn to violence and substance abuse in later years.

The Independent also identified the issue that children that grow up without having contact with their fathers may develop psychological damage. This is all so that the government can save, on average, £350 per custody case. The change within legal aid is described as a quick fix for the economy without taking into consideration the impact on children in later years.

The cuts could also affect adolescents directly in troubled situations.

The Children Society have put forward ‘Sarah’s’ case. ‘Sarah’ moved to the United Kingdom with her father when she was six years old. At the age of 14, ‘Sarah’ was abandoned by her father and began sleeping rough and living with friends. At the age of 17, ‘Sarah’ approached Social Services for help with housing and money, but was told there was nothing they could do because of her immigration status. Legal aid helped ‘Sarah’ get the support she needed from her father.

Legal aid is intended to be a safety net for members of society to seek the justice they deserve. Without it, many people will disregard the legal system completely and make no attempts to go to court to arrange a divorce or residence agreement. This will cause troubled homes in most cases. Alternatively, some people may feel the need to represent themselves in court which will slow down the system.

On average, a family law matter takes 36 weeks to resolve through the court system. This could almost double if a person chooses to represent themselves. 36 weeks is a long time to leave a child feeling unsettled and having to deal with the emotional trauma their parents will suffer. If this time doubles, it is almost certain that a child could begin to develop psychological difficulties.

This is all so that the government can save, on average, £350 per custody case.

A Ministry of Justice (MOJ) spokesperson on family cases has assured the public that legal aid will still be available to cases where children are at risk. This covers issues such as domestic abuse.

However, it seems the government are not considering the psychological risk for children. While the MOJ spokesperson addressed the issue of physical harm, mental harm is seemingly left unacknowledged.

The BPS identifies that it is the psychological harm of children that could result in them becoming physical harmers in their adult life.

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