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Getting Legal Aid lost me everything

I saw a tweet today around the subject of Legal Aid and it led me to writing this blog about my experience with Legal Aid.
 
As you are probably aware, Legal Aid for Divorce changed dramatically in April 2013 which means that legal aid is now limited to low income applicants (on benefits or means tested), but only if their situation falls into one of these categories:

Cases where there has been domestic abuse

Children, financial matters and applications for injunctions where the applicant is, or has been, the victim of domestic violence. These involve cases where one party has hurt, abused or threatened the divorce applicant or the applicant’s child, and even where the abuse does not form a relevant part of the case before the courts. If there has been abuse then you may be entitled to Legal Aid.

Domestic violence is defined as “any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality”. As well as the physical aspects the definition includes aspects of control e.g. preventing access to money or family/friend support networks and also verbal abuse such as name calling.
 
Evidence of this abuse will need to be provided, and can be in the form of a conviction or caution, injunctive order or undertaking, a finding of fact made by the court, letter confirming violence from the Local Authority, health care professionals, domestic violence refuge or MARAC. You can get a letter from your GP or Private Doctor. If you have suffered abuse, collate your evidence as soon as you can as this is crucial. Even if you don’t think you have enough evidence, at least try.

Local authority child protection matters

If the local authority has child protection concerns, parents, children and other interested adults will continue to be able to access legal aid.

Child abduction cases

If there is a history of, or risk of, child abduction outside the UK, or a child has been unlawfully removed within the UK, legal aid may be available.

Forced marriage

Anyone threatened or forced to marry against their will can apply for a Forced Marriage Protection Order.

Except for child protection and child abduction cases, legal aid will not be available for individuals responding to a divorce application, unless the respondent is also a victim of domestic abuse.
 
So I fell into the first category. My husband punched me and left me with a fractured nose. It was six weeks before I reported it to the Police and GP. My doctor was however able to give medical evidence as I had suffered a broken nose. Granted, he didn’t know how that had happened and had to go on my true word. I had however spoken about my marriage to the GP in the past.
 
I found a Legal Aid Solicitor about 30 miles from my home as there are not many. I completed forms with her about my income etc. At that time I had started to be on Jobseekers allowance and all other possible benefits as my husband had abandoned the children and I and we were on the verge of being made homeless which then ended in us actually being homeless. I started the process in June 2016. I soon realised that things were not going to be easy. The first hurdle was that I was apparently not on the right Jobseekers Allowance. I was on contribution based Job Seekers as my National Insurance was up to date. Although I had not been working (only as a MUM!!!), I had kept my “stamp” up to date for my pension etc. I was told by the Legal Aid Agency (that I needed to be on a “passporting” benefit to be entitled to Legal Aid).
 
My ex is a millionaire and my next hurdle was that he was paying the private school fees. I was absolutely shocked when LAA told me that the school fees he was paying were seen as MY INCOME! I argued with them on this point for at least a month. How could that be my income? He chose not to give me a penny but carry on with the children’s schooling for his ego trip. I even went to court for Maintenance Pending Suit but that failed as he had hidden his assets and his family were gifting him his income so in the eyes of the law he had no income. Things changed when his Mother started paying the school fees. When he had actually stopped paying them, that was around the same my NI contributions ran out and I was moved onto income based Job Seekers. Being on what the LAA term as the “passporting” benefit kicked in immediately and 6 months after my application, LA was granted. That was back in December 2016.
 
Looking back, I am not entirely sure that it was worth the effort and I am certain that LA clients get a different service to normal paying clients. Everything was all a bit slap-dash and my solicitor wouldn’t return my calls as they were not within the budget. I felt alone much of the time and was left to research things myself. I definitely didn’t feel supported. I suppose the biggest loss was my children. I ended up giving my ex 50:50 shared care as he turned up to court with a big entourage (his legal team and psychologist) and I was there with my legal aid barrister with half her previous nights dinner on her jacket!
 
My ex changed from saying he wanted access to saying that it was 50:50 or he would go for full custody, even though he had tried to hang himself in front of the children when I asked him to leave the year before. I felt alone, pressurised and scared. There he was throwing money at his team and there was I on a budget and no one was advising me. I saw a lawyer recently at a top London law firm and he told me that he has never seen a case where, 50:50 is awarded by the Judge when it is disputed by the current parent. My Barrister never advised me to keep fighting. I guess the budget was for one case only… I was the victim of Domestic Abuse and of course, seeing him in court and his bullying team threatening that they would take the children away from me scared me into submission. I did what they demanded.

That was the first mistake in my case and my legal team did nothing. At no point was I ever advised that if I didn’t fight the 50:50 I would lose money for my children. (Remember.. my ex is a millionaire and has not given me a penny towards maintenance etc – his assets are all abroad – he is also a narcissist – diagnosed!).  

So, that was that – he had 50:50 shared care – not because he wanted the children – but it was good for his fight against me and his financials as in the court we now had the same “need”. Moving to the financials we went to an FDR where I said I would accept £40k and he turned me down. I just wanted it over and I wanted him to pay the debts he had put onto my cards as a means of control “you can’t leave me! I have put £40k on your credit cards”. We then went to a Final Hearing. I was awarded a decent sum but the DDJ didn’t sum up properly and my ex appealed. Move on another year and he got his appeal and we were going to another Final Hearing. Just before this second final hearing, LA stopped as I had a part-time job. Everyone was saying that I needed to stay on Job Seekers until it was all over, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t pretend to not be able to get a job. That felt wrong. My ex instructed even more powerful lawyers and with no support and no money to continue, I walked away with nothing £0. What I am left with is 50% of two children, no home, a basic income, no pension, no maintenance and no way of having fun with my children such as holidays etc.

The system has failed me. I discovered at the last case that my Form A had been incorrectly completed by my LA Solicitor. She hadn’t ticked the box saying that I wanted his assets to be part of the divorce pot. I had even gone through one Final Hearing with that form, but a new Judge for the second hearing said that the form was unacceptable. With no legal aid and costs mounting up with things such as the wrongly completed Form A, I had to jump ship with nothing. I had no means to continue.  

To be fair to the Barrister for the financials case, she was great, but must have also felt out of her depth as the case involved foreign assets (European). There was no LA funding to instruct an expert from the other country, so my ex could just make up whatever he wanted, we had no money to challenge what he was saying. How could my Barrister fight the huge fire of my case armed only with a water pistol from LA? If LA are going to fund cases, shouldn’t they be funded correctly? Just to prove my point. My ex paid out £150k in legal fees and my LA bill was just over £15k. The case was not run as it should. If LA had funded properly I would probably be £500k better off (at least) and they would have had their money back. As it happens… LA will not receive anything because they jumped off the ship before I did, they got so far and then abandoned me at the last post.. they actually accused me of not telling them that I had taken part time work! I was earning less than I was getting in benefits. No longer being on a benefit means abandonment. It seems that you are not supposed to pick yourself up and brush yourself down!  

My advice is that LA is a waste of time and energy and you will be left feeling frustrated as you know you can do more to win. You feel as though you are represented, but you are actually not. It’s a half-hearted attempt by the LA solicitor. I am not even sure if my solicitor was really involved. The incorrect form filling was apparently done by the secretary. I feel let down and left with nothing.   I could not have been a Litigant in Person with my case as it was far to complex, but maybe that is a better way to go if you are running a UK case?  

There is also a scheme called ‘Public Access’ where you can appoint a Barrister directly to represent you, without having to use a solicitor. Many barristers who do public access work offer reduced fee schemes for those on low incomes. This scheme has the further advantage of permitting the client to call on legal help only as and when this is required, thus enabling the client to keep a very close eye on the purse – but again you need money! If you have absolutely nothing. What do you do?  

It is also possible for people to represent themselves in Court as a “litigant in person”, but whilst this might appear to be a way to save money, you should be careful as there are numerous pitfalls to catch out the uninitiated . Knowledge of what evidence and how to obtain this, as well as a working knowledge of the relevant laws and the courts’ interpretation of these is key. There are some charities such as the Personal Support Unit who provide practical and emotional support to people who are representing themselves in court, although they do not offer legal advice.  

My thought is that unless you have money you are not going to come out well in divorce if you ex has lots of money which he or she can hide in one way or another. My exes case was funded by his rich Mother and Sister so that no money went through his hands. Does he feel good leaving me destitute with nothing? Does he feel that it is right to leave the Mother of his children in the position of having nothing? Probably, but then he is a psycho.   There is no point in giving LA help unless the case is going to be run properly.   Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Author: The Group Hug

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