Concern for vulnerable families as law firms are denied legal aid contracts
FAMILY law firms are launching appeals against cuts in legal aid, which they say will leave the most vulnerable people abandoned.
Out of 12 firms practising family law in Lincoln and Gainsborough, only five in the city have been awarded legal aid contracts.
And no contracts have been awarded to the three main family law firms in Gainsborough – an area of significant deprivation.
Nationally, the Law Society is challenging the lawfulness of the allocation of the family law contracts.
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It is thought Lincolnshire is one of the hardest hit areas in the country and vulnerable people, including women and children, could be left without help when they need it.
Sue Westcott, assistant director of children's services at Lincolnshire County Council, said: "We are committed to achieving the best outcomes for the children and parents in Lincolnshire and we would be concerned about a situation which could mean the access to legal advice could be compromised.
"It could impact on vulnerable people most in need of legal aid such as for domestic violence and family work cases, and could lead to increased travel costs for those who can least afford them.
"These sort of proceedings are often highly complex and sensitive and it is essential for the welfare of the children concerned that families have the ability to access appropriate local legal support and representation.
"We are aware a number of local firms, which specialise in this area, have not secured funding for this type of work which could have consequences for the viability of some firms and affect staffing levels."
It is understood firms who were denied funding are in the process of appealing to the Legal Services Commission, which hands out the money through the Ministry of Justice.
Representative for the Lincolnshire Law Society, Stuart Collingham, said: "It means there will be parts of the county with little or no provision.
"The important issue is that family law includes domestic abuse cases. Imagine a victim in Gainsborough who goes to get an injunction against a partner – there will be no firm which can offer legal aid.
"Experienced people who have been specialists in work with children and domestic violence will not be able to take cases and that's a great loss of talent."
The tendering exercise introduced by the Labour Government in January is behind the sporadic allocations, along with 25 per cent cuts from Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's £2.2 billion legal aid budget. The new contracts will take effect in October. Nationally, 1,300 firms got legal aid cash, but 2,400 applied.
Jenny James, senior refuge worker at Lincoln Women's Aid, said the organisation often supported women going to court without the need for legal aid, instead letting them represent themselves.
But she added: "It would be shocking if women were not able to get the protection they need when they are victims. For anyone who can't get that, it's a pretty poor situation.
"It could put more women at risk if they are not able to get legal aid. But it's not just about injunctions, it's about children as well."
A Gainsborough solicitor, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "We deal with lots of domestic violence cases and work closely with Women's Aid. We have clients who have often been beaten up or sustained injuries and need urgent assistance by way of non-molestation orders and related orders often to protect children.
"With these cases, we have to act very quickly and often on the same day and get the police involved."
A spokesman for the Legal Services Committee said: "We have received approximately 900 appeals across all civil tenders.
"As the deadline for some appeals has yet to pass, this may not be the final position."