TUC 2012: For many years Napo has been calling for the reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.
A radical overhaul was long overdue as people with criminal offences were obliged to disclose relatively minor offences when applying for work, long after they had taken place and when many had changed their lives and behaviour significantly.
The Act was, in effect, undermining the rehabilitation of people who no longer posed any threat to society.
So it was good to welcome significant changes to the Act earlier this year which mean that sentences of up to four years will be treated as "spent" - not requiring disclosure, thus enabling the speedier reintegration of ex-offenders back into society.
How ironic then that this progressive change was achieved as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) - a piece of legislation which in other respects is a divisive and dangerous assault on the right of people to receive legal aid.
The Ministry of Justice claims that Laspo structurally changes legal aid in order to focus it on cases where legal assistance is needed, citing threat to life or liberty and the risk of children being removed into care.
Then justice secretary Ken Clarke claimed that legal aid would always be available in family court proceedings involving allegations of domestic violence, while then justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said: "This Act ensures we will continue to have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world, which together with no-win no-fee deals means that legal help is widely available for those who cannot afford a lawyer."
Napo - along with other unions and pressure groups representing staff in the family courts - would beg to differ.
In its response to the consultation on the then Laspo Bill, the Family Courts unions' cross-party group which involves parliamentarians interested in family work along with Napo, PCS and Nagalro (the professional association for guardians) raised wide-ranging concerns about the impact of the Bill's provisions on family justice.
There's a disturbing lack of clarity about which cases involving family violence which would be covered by legal aid.
What impact cuts will have on the alternative forms of support offered to families denied access to legal aid has not been revealed.
Reducing payment of expert witnesses could have a negative effect on the quality of assessment in cases where a decision needs to be made about children's care.
And proceedings are likely to be delayed - increasing costs, incidentally - by people without legal representation who attempt to argue their own cases.
During the passage of the Bill representatives of the opposition in the House of Lords sought to amend it in relation to these key issues, particularly domestic violence - but the government defeats were overturned and only a few concessions made.
Napo and other interested parties are monitoring the consequences of the Act for practice in the family courts. Evidence is beginning to accrue of the difficulties it will cause.
Napo members working in the family courts are already reporting significant delays in proceedings as a result of increasing numbers of litigants appearing without legal representation.
As predicted, hearings take much longer because judges or their legal advisers have to stop to explain proceedings at regular intervals.
There is evidence that this leads to longer waiting lists for hearings, as more time has to be set aside to compensate for delays.
We are beginning to hear examples of protracted arguments over payment for assessment reports resulting in further delays, increased anxiety for the parties involved and the risk of judgements being made without full information being available.
Our members remain deeply concerned that the new legal aid rules and long delays in proceedings will result in vulnerable children and adults being placed at greater risk.
This is why Napo is seeking Congress's support for our motion calling for an urgent review of Laspo's provisions in relation to the family courts.
The cost of legal aid is significant and the argument for some reform was generally accepted.
But making draconian changes at the expense of equality of access to justice and with the potential to place more children and adults at risk of harm is neither fair nor responsible.
Jonathan Ledger is general secretary of Napo.
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