Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Reaction from family law expert, Karina Leapman, to government plans to have students advise divorcing couples

Legal aid cuts have left the family courts in disarray, as most divorcing couples do not qualify for legal aid, and end up representing themselves. In place of lawyers providing expert advice, the Government plans to introduce advice centres, where law students will provide advice to divorcing couples who cannot afford legal representation.

This plan concerns family law expert, Karina Leapman.

At Karina Leapman & Co, “we are careful about the cases in which we involve students. We feel that depending on the age, experience and our view of their level of maturity, some cases are not appropriate for students to deal with.” 

Ms Leapman’s concerns relate to confidentiality of client information, quality of representation, and the devastating impact of getting family law advice wrong.

Confidentiality
Ms Leapman notes that in her office, “sometimes clients do not even feel comfortable with a student sitting in on a meeting and taking a note when they are speaking about emotional and deeply personal matters.”

Quality advice from students?
“I gave free legal advice when I was a student and newly qualified solicitor”, says Ms Leapman.  “I remember becoming out of my depth and having to ask for help as new scenarios were presented, which hardly gives confidence to the recipient of such underdeveloped assistance.”

If clients need a hand to hold or someone to talk to, they can often go to family and friends. However, “when they seek legal advice, they want an experienced person who knows what they are talking about, to whom they can unburden and receive good advice and guidance.”

“Is it fair to expect people going through what is often one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives, which incidentally is likely to impact on their children’s future welfare into adulthood, to rely on help from students?”  

The value of experienced, qualified legal advice 
When asked about her view on students providing advice to couples splitting up, Ms Leapman stated: “[Family lawyers] do not train for years, work alongside more experienced lawyers and continue learning in the job for nothing.”

In her experience, Ms Leapman has found that “some people think that all they need to do is separate or divorce to resolve matters” and they do not consider the other areas of their lives that could be affected. She points out that important issues, such as domestic abuse, interests in property, child abduction, child protection,  dishonesty or jurisdiction issues could be missed by student advisors.

“Would a student spot the signs and be able to advise clearly, kindly and firmly on matters that need to be addressed urgently? I think the risk is too great to all concerned.”

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