Bring back legal aid: a failure of imagination?

Earlier this week, I received the first news that one of the firms we engaged about joining our network is closing its family law practice.

I met the two impacted lawyers just a month ago. Both were very experienced with long careers built upon helping people with few resources at their disposal. It was rather sad sitting across two such accomplished professionals knowing then that the partners in charge had a painful but straightforward decision to make.

And so it came to pass in the same week that an e-petition to restore the availability of legal aid to those in Private Family Law matters, surged past 2,000 signatures.

Of course there’s no harm in lobbying but with changes to legal aid funding less than a month old, it’s unlikely the petition will raise much more than an eyebrow in Whitehall.

Which of course leaves many legal aid family lawyers wondering what the future holds? If yours is a family law practice heavily skewed towards public funding, the question is most acute. How does a business losing the lion share of its turnover overnight survive and prosper in a totally unsubsidised environment called the market?

“Go fixed fee!” is becoming a familiar refrain. But does the sudden surge in advertised fixed fee packages actually meet client demand for an affordable structured service? Or do such packages owe more to translating hourly rate services into free standing concurrent  modules that – when combined – are still beyond the pocket of most clients earning an average salary.

Moreover, changing one’s fee structure is no more than an internal decision however brave it feels. You still need to attract the private clients that can afford to pay them. And with a great many impacted family lawyers taking the same measures and 100% private firms looking over their shoulder, the battle to attract private clients has surely never been fiercer.

An impacted family law practice clearly needs a story in this environment or a unique selling point (USP) as the jargon goes. In short, do something different! Like join forces with non-lawyer professionals to deliver a quality divorce & separation service at a price most clients can afford.

Lawyer-supported mediation is just such an example. As are some of the pilot schemes recently funded by the Department of Work & Pensions.

While innovation persists, the withdrawal of public funding need not be terminal. That will always be the preserve of a failure of imagination.

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