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June Venters QC Top Ranked in Chambers UK 2016

Chambers 2016

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Top Ranked Leading Firm Chambers 2015

June Venters QC writes to the Lord Chancellor about her concerns concerning changes which have been made to legal aid

June Venters QC has written personally to the Lord Chancellor, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Chief Executive of the Legal aid agency to express her immense concern at the change to the means testing of legal aid.  She drew to his attention one particular case as an example in respect of which she is instructed and which involves potentially serious risks to an abducted child where urgent High Court Orders were necessary to seek the child’s return to the jurisdiction of England and Wales.    Legal aid was not available because the client did not qualify on means even though she was in receipt of a “passported benefit.”

Extracts of her letter are as follows:

I am writing to you to express my immense and continuing concern about the inadequacies of our failing justice system brought about in particular by the implementation of what I can only describe as illogical and unfair legal aid decisions which are seriously impacting, in my view, on the ability to secure necessary access to justice.

I have always accepted that legal aid needed to be controlled and I accept in the past just as with any system there has been abuse but what is now happening is that there is a justice system for the rich and none for the rest of society in many instances and I cannot believe that is the desire or intention of this Government. 

I wish to draw to your attention one particular example with which I am involved and in respect of which I have spent many hours of providing pro bono work.

My client failed the means test because of recent changes to legal aid whereby even though previously the receipt of certain state benefits would automatically “passport” someone to legal aid eligibility this is no longer the case and capital has to be taken into consideration.

She explained that in her client’s case the client whilst having a property which had, on paper, an equity of £200,000, in practice she was not in a financially credible position sufficient to enable her to raise monies against the equity in order to fund her legal costs.

The client was in receipt of income-related employment and support allowance [a “passport” benefit] but because of the equity in her property [which was not in dispute within these proceedings and thus could not be disregarded] she was not eligible for legal aid.

She went on to say in her letter:

It has to be questioned why it is that one Government department deems my client’s income sufficiently limited so as to justify supplementing it by way of a state benefit when another Government department responsible for justice deems my client’s financial position sufficiently able to fund her own legal costs.   I understand that the theory behind this illogical decision is that my client could raise a loan against her property, however, my client’s debt is such that she is not able to acquire a loan and in any event if she did this would increase her outgoings placing an additional burden on her income necessitating further supplementation by way of state benefits..

I urge some consideration for changing the current policy with regard to legal aid financial “passporting.”  It is not serving the public and in my view is placing children at risk such as in this case.

One further issue and which I know has been raised by our professional bodies, the removal of legal aid per se in relation to family cases [save for child abduction] unless it meets the domestic violence criteria which remains increasingly difficult is also having a seriously negative impact on the most vulnerable members in society.  Time and time again I am faced with family issues that cannot be resolved without legal advice and representation and at times court intervention. At times members of the public and their children are left in an untenable situation and which then impacts negatively on their health which in turn affects their ability to work and takes up NHS resources.  I know that as an individual I am not going to achieve the abandonment of this policy when our professional organisations have failed to do so but I felt I could not ignore this subject whilst writing about my concerns.  It is my view that the short term saving the Government will have made with regard to this policy will be the Government’s long term loss overall although without proper financial monitoring and reporting the losses that will be incurred to other Government departments as a result of this policy such as NHS and DWP will simply be absorbed without the cause for such losses being obvious.

I am perfectly aware of the drive to provide pro bono services.  I have done this the whole of my career and continue to offer a pro bono clinic one evening every week.  However, if I am to remain in business and employ staff and I hope provide training to future lawyers I cannot undertake only Pro Bono work as much as I would like to do so. 

I urge this Government to review its policies with regard to legal aid and in particular with regard to the specific issue which I have addressed in this letter concerning the “passporting” of benefits. 

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Interview with Denise Hoilette

TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF

I first joined Venters Solicitors as a Locum Solicitor at their Reigate office and then subsequently became a Senior Solicitor and Head of Department in 2011 and was made a Salaried Partner in 2012.

I love the challenge of the variety of work that I conduct at Venters.  I meet very interesting people in very distressing circumstances and am privileged to have a role where I assist in some crucial decisions that are being made in their lives.

I have had an extensive Family Law practice for over 21 years.  I specialise in divorce, finance orders relating to marriage and relationship breakdown including international elements and assets, injunctions both civil and domestic violence and co-habitation work.  I was involved in setting up a Domestic Violence One Stop Advice Service many years ago and have continued throughout my years of practice to take a special interest in domestic violence issues and the protection of victims.

I specialise in representing parents and children in Care Proceedings and other child related Court actions such as special guardianship, residence and child arrangements applications. I have often represented clients with an international element and have also represented clients in child abduction and leave to remove cases. I conduct a large proportion of my own advocacy in various courts.

I am a member of the Law Society’s Children Panel (Adult and Child), Family Law Panel and am a member of the Association of Lawyers for Children, Resolution and advise clients via The Grandparents Association.  I have represented children in non-accidental injury cases and other complex care cases. I act for children with significant mental or physical health or behavioural problems.

I have a very active and challenging parent care case load and take great care to listen to my clients to ensure that I understand their position and their lives and what they have experienced.  It is a great privilege which I take seriously, no mater what type of case I am involved in.

In 2003 I obtained an MBA (Legal Practice).

WHAT DREW YOU TO THE LAW

I wanted to be a Solicitor from when I was 12 years old. It attracted me as it seemed like a challenging and exciting career- and so it has been!

I have been fortunate to have conducted 3 cases at Court of Appeal level.

I like to add to my knowledge all the time and I am currently turning my attention to add into my specialisms in advising clients in relation to alternative family issues for single sex couples.  Given my extensive experience in the law relating to relationship breakdown and children this fits very well with my professional interests.

WHAT DO YOU OFFER YOUR CLIENT

I develop a close working relationship with my clients and listen to them very carefully and actively as I like to understand their motivations and experiences. Clearly working with clients in distress is a huge privilege and there is a delicate balance to strike. I am very clear in the legal advice that I give and the reality of an individual’s situation so that I can provide realistic options.

I believe that being clear and honest with clients is absolutely crucial so that clients can make informed choices about their lives.

As I am a Solicitor Advocate I provide a seamless service from the very first meeting through to court hearings and I believe that this is very reassuring for clients.

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT LAWYERING

I love singing and I am a member of a large London based choir who have performed at various major London concert venues.  I love running (when my knees allow!) and walking and going out.

I am a former Chair of a Board of School Governors at a local school and continue to be a Governor which is very interesting and rewarding.

I love spending time with my friends and family and many people say that they never know what I am going to be up to next as I am a great believer in seizing the day and having as much fun as possible!  I have travelled extensively around the world.

CAN YOU DECRIBE YOURSELF OF IN FIVE WORDS

Not really – I don’t think anybody can!  People have said that I am fun, caring, vibrant, passionate and a straight talker.

Family Justice

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice have shown a marked increase in the numbers of unrepresented parties ending up in the Family Court since 2012.

Unrepresented parties brought around 25,000 cases in 2012 whereas this figure increased to nearly 35,000 in 2013. Legal Aid cuts implemented in 2013 are thought to be a significant factor in this phenomenon.

As well as the year-on-year figures for child-related cases displaying a marked increase in the numbers of unrepresented parties overall; in relative terms, they made up more than 50 per cent of the child-related cases appearing in the Family Court in the latter part of 2013.

Legal Aid Cuts and Divorce

Since 2013, cuts to legal aid have removed financial assistance for a host of civil claims including many areas of private family law.This means that divorcing couples often feel that they cannot seek professional specialist legal advice due to a lack of personal financial means.

Despite this, the number of divorcing couples heading to court to resolve their differences has not fallen but has increased by around 5 per cent, resulting in significant delays. It has been suggested that the absence of solicitors in the divorce process may have made couples less likely to be informed about the alternatives, leaving them to opt for unnecessarily costly and stressful court proceedings.

Family lawyers are not just experts in family law but they usually have significant experience in alternative dispute resolution techniques such as mediation.

Will the Recent Changes Made by the Children and Families Act 2014 Help?

The Children and Families Act 2014 implemented in April 2014, specifically encourages divorcing couples to focus on the welfare of children by placing time limits on care proceedings and making the use of mediation information meetings compulsory.

Mediation itself is still supported by Legal Aid but the Ministry of Justice figures suggest that mediation’s fell dramatically year on year between 2012 and 2013.

Any experienced family lawyer will confirm that mediation is far less stressful than a full blown court case as well as being quicker and cheaper. However, there are some cases where it may not be suitable such as high value divorce cases or where there is a significant imbalance of means between the parties.

Comment

Divorce is often an incredibly stressful experience for all concerned, not least for any children that are involved. Even parties that feel they cannot afford legal advice should at least attempt to speak to  family solicitor to see what help is available before heading to court unrepresented. This often turns out to be far more cost effective in the long run.  For specialist advice please contact us on 01737 229 610 or info@venters.co.uk.

Remember divorce is a life changing event.  Make sure the change you make gives you the best opportunity possible to move on with your life and doesn’t cause you difficulties for years to come.

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