In November 2010 Kenneth Clarke announced that the government would be making major changes to the system of public funding ("legal aid"). Mr Clarke said that civil legal aid would only be routinely available in cases where life or liberty was at stake. The proposals are intended to cut the legal aid bill by £350m a year by 2015 and it is thought that there will be half a million fewer civil cases as a result.
Fortunately for child abuse victims, it is not proposed to remove legal aid entirely, although assistance given to those making claims to the CICA may be removed. The reasoning is that it would be wrong to take away legal aid from those who have been subject to serious wrongdoing by public authorities. But what about the victims of abuse who are making claims directly against their abusers? Currently, these claims are covered by legal aid but it is not clear what will happen to them. It has also been proposed that legal aid rates will be cut and that claimants will be asked to pay higher contributions towards their legal fees.
It is feared that these proposals will ultimately undermine those most in need of support: victims and the financially disadvantaged.
Child abuse claims can be document intensive and often a huge amount of work is needed at very early stage – for instance if Court proceedings are needed to be issued due to concerns over time limits or immediate action is needed to ensure an abuser does not dissipate their assets. Expert evidence from a number of specialists are regularly required and applications to Court to obtain local authority records is often necessary. Added to this is the view that child abuse claims are not high enough in value.
Child abuse lawyers will have to face this challenge and look to reduce the costs of running these cases or not take them on at all. Victims of abuse may have to be advised that damages will be limited and therefore the normal investigations we would do such as obtaining witness evidence, obtaining a detailed psychiatric report would not be recoverable and could affect how much of their compensation they are left with.
Victims of abuse and their lawyers will face many challenges over the next few years but the Irwin Mitchell Child Abuse Team will be keeping a very close eye on the reforms in public funding and civil litigation costs and will continue to respond to, and challenge if necessary, any proposals which will affect the victim’s right to access to justice.
Gary Walker - Associate Solicitor, Sheffield