Family breakdown costs £468 million a year…for now
New figures obtained by The Sunday Telegraph show hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is spent on legal advice to divorcing couples, helping parents fight child custody battles, or trying to restrain violent partners.
Warring families are also using the civil legal aid system to sue over contested wills, argue between siblings over inheritance and even argue in court about the names of their children after divorces.
Critics said the figures revealed the true cost of “broken Britain”, and how lawyers were profiting from family separations.
The cost of family breakdowns has risen dramatically over recent years. Lawyers representing parents in child custody cases against each other or the state now charge £468 million in legal aid fees each year.
In total just over £2.1 billion is paid to lawyers from the legal aid budget, £1.2 billion of it to defend criminals, the rest to advise people on civil cases, which as well as family law include aid for immigrants trying to stay in the country, people suing over alleged mistreatment at the hands of the NHS or the police, and prisoners upset at jail conditions.
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Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, has promised to dramatically cut the total amount spent in the teeth of major opposition from lawyers.
Many lawyers are almost entirely dependent on legal aid work and a list released by Mr Clarke’s department shows that some firms make millions each year from charging the state for their clients.
The ten biggest recipients of legal aid, all of them large law firms, received £45.6 million.
Jonathan Djanogly, the justice minister, said: “At more than £2 billion a year, we pay far more per head than most other countries for legal aid.
“The current system encourages lengthy, acrimonious and sometimes unnecessary court proceedings, at taxpayers’ expense, which do not always ensure the best result for those involved.
“We need to make clear choices to ensure that legal aid will continue to be available in those cases that really require it, the protection of the most vulnerable in society, and the efficient performance of the justice system.
“Our proposals aim to radically reform the system and encourage people to take advantage of the most appropriate sources of help, advice or routes to resolution – which will not always involve the expense of lawyers or courts.”
The figures show that in total £645 million was spent on family law – out of a total of £940 million spent on civil cases and advice.
And most of that – £468 million – was spent on custody disputes over children, which can be extremely bitter and lengthy.
The total number of children involved is unknown but there are around 55,000 divorces each year where the couple have children – although not all will mean a state-funded custody dispute.
And the number of custody battles arising from legal separations or cases involving unmarried parents is not known, but is likely to account for a significant part of the £468 million legal bill.
The taxpayer is also paying £25 million for lawyers’ fees in divorce cases – and £350,000 for lawyers seeking to have children’s names changed in the aftermath of disputes.
Before gaining power Conservative politicians frequently warned that Britain’s broken families were putting a strain on public finances and pledged to tackle the problem, including then opposition leader David Cameron.
Mr Cameron said: “Actually we need to have a more pro-family country, we need to get behind marriage and commitment and fatherhood and we need to have much more discipline in our schools and we need to have a revolution in the way that we provide welfare and education that will really mend the broken society.”
The Government announced in November that it considered many of the claims to be unreasonable, and drew up plans to cut the civil legal aid bill dramatically.
It promised restrictions on the type of family cases that would receive support, and said couples would be forced to undergo mediation before becoming eligible for legal aid.
The changes will mean child residency disputes between parents, or arguments over money, including divorce settlements, will no longer be funded unless domestic violence is involved.
Cases of children being taken into care, forced marriages, and international child abduction will still be funded, but the rules about who is entitled to legal aid will be tightened, meaning no homeowner will be able to claim support.
Currently to qualify for either civil or criminal legal aid claimants need to provide evidence that they have less than £8,000 in cash and savings.
Even with large cuts the cost of family cases is still expected to reach more than £450 million annually.
One area of expenditure which will raise concern that taxpayers’ money is being used to help individuals become wealthier is the more than £2 million spent on inheritance disputes and relatives suing each other over the outcomes of wills.
The plans, which are currently being finalised, will also see all assistance withdrawn in areas including clinical negligence claims, consumer disputes, and arguments about welfare payments.
The figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that as well as family law, £89 million was given to lawyers for immigration and asylum work, virtually all of it to help immigrants stay in the country, £52 million was handed over to sue the NHS and healthcare providers, £60 million to aid tenants arguing over housing, much of it public-sector, and £33 million for fighting against clients’ debts, £28 million for disputing welfare payments and £1 million for taking action against police forces and prisons.