25 Days and Counting …
A couple of weeks ago the Legal Aid Agency issued the new Means 7 Form. This is the form that has to be completed to determine whether a client is eligible for Mediation Legal Aid.
In 25 days' time not only will there be big changes to the whole Legal Aid regime but the eligibility criteria for Mediation Legal Aid is also changing:
- From 1 April onwards it will no longer be the case that anyone on Benefits such as Income Support/Income Based Jobseekers Allowance will automatically qualify for Mediation Legal Aid.
- From 1 April onwards everyone will need to produce documentation to verify capital assets including monies in all bank accounts / investments / savings.
- From 1 April onwards documents will be needed to verify expenditure on rent / mortgage / board / child care and receipt of monies from all sources including Benefits in Kind.
- From 1 April onwards any assets even those that are the subject matter of the dispute will be taken into account when calculating eligibility for Mediation Legal Aid.
There is little wonder that Lord Neuberger has felt it necessary to voice concern about the Legal Aid cuts. If Legal Aid is no longer available to sort out financial and children matters on divorce; if the eligibility criteria for Legal Aid to mediate on these issues are so stringent that fewer people are eligible then this means an inevitable increase in the number of people in highly distressed states attending Court Offices across the country seeking assistance to deal with all and any issues arising from their relationship breakdown.
If Clients cannot afford a lawyer, if they cannot afford a Mediator, they have no option but to be Self Representing Parties.
Will the Court's resources stretch to Advice Clinics on how to complete forms so that the Judge has the information needed to determine the case. If Judges have to explain what needs to be done then the Court List becomes unmanageable - a hearing that is listed for 15 minutes could take an hour or more.
It is not just the poor or lower middle classes who will be affected by these changes. Clients who can afford representation will also find their costs increasing - instead of paying for 15 minutes of time to deal with a Court hearing they will be paying for more than an hour. The Judge will likely look to any Lawyer involved in a case, to assist the Self Representing Party. It will be that Lawyer who will be asked to prepare Letters of Instruction to Experts; that same Lawyer will be asked to prepare Court Bundles - this work will increase the costs of the person who is paying for the Lawyer's time. Experts are likely to refuse to accept instructions without payment of fees in advance or confirmation from the Lawyer that monies are held to cover the cost - it is inevitable that this will lead to further delay.
Mediation will still be an attractive choice from a costs point of view even if that one person pays all the mediation fees.
Family Arbitration may become the cost effective approach of choice particularly if agreements cannot be reached at mediation.
In addition to deciding where the children will live and who will have what there will also be two fundamental decisions for clients to make. How shall we sort things out i.e. the choice of approach and how will any costs be paid?
In an ideal world clients may need to agree from the outset that the cost of sorting everything out will be paid from the assets that they intend to divide.
This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.