Penny Scott, Partner and Solicitor for Cartridges Law spoke with BBC Essex in her capacity as Chair of the Law Society’s Family Law Committee last week.
The subject of the discussion was Olly Sheridan, a young boy from Essex who has been missing, along with his mother since July 2018. In December the High Court waived anonymity of the child in an effort to locate him. A friend of Olly’s mother suspects that she has gone “underground” because her voice wasn’t heard by the court system.
Penny joined the ‘Breakfast with Ben and Sonia’ team to talk about the case from a family practitioner’s perspective. Penny opened stating that it is “pretty unusual” to name a child publicly; and the move is often reserved for serious case. It was her view that the court likely pursued other options prior to naming him. Unfortunately, it seems as though those efforts had not been productive.
Turning to the anonymous friend’s comments, Penny said “if a person is not represented, [the court system] can be extremely puzzling”.. and that “access to justice is fine if you have cash”.
The comments reflect the devastating effect of cuts to legal aid in family cases over the past 5 years. While it is unclear whether Olly’s mother had access to legal aid during the court case, the reinstatement of access to justice through legal aid is vital and is something Penny and the Law Society are campaigning hard for.
The Law Society campaign expresses the importance of early family advice, rather than reactive representation to damage already done. Early legal advice can direct people to mediation and other forms of support, as well as offering information about the realities of the court process.
The Law Society also thinks that legal aid should be available for both parents during ‘fact-finding’ hearings in children cases. This is when allegations of risk are tested by the court and the outcome can have a massive impact on a child’s future relationship with his or her parents. These are already complicated legal processes, but the lack of legal aid can sometimes make things worse by leading to exaggerated allegations. Very worryingly, the current position also allows alleged perpetrators of domestic abuse to cross examine their alleged victim, face to face.