Surge in divorces pushes up Government legal bill
By Brian Reyes
A sharp rise in the number of divorce cases has led to a crippling workload for the Social Services Agency and contributed to a massive bill of over £2 million for publicly-funded legal assistance in the past two financial years.
The workload has created a backlog of welfare reports required by the courts to assist in ruling on matrimonial proceedings, with some cases delayed by up to a year.
Lawyers say this situation often leads to undue hardship for the families involved.
And because the courts need to keep track of cases while waiting for these reports, the delays also bump up the cost of publicly-funded legal representation. Each time a lawyer acting on legal assistance appears before a judge or a magistrate to check on the progress of a case, the meter is running and the final bill to the taxpayer is growing.
Figures presented to the last session of the House of Assembly in response to Opposition questions show that law firms have been paid £1.63 million from the public purse for legal assistance work carried out over the past two financial years.
In the 2003-2004 financial year alone, one legal practice was paid £255,791.38 for such work. The £1.63m total presented to the House is in fact below the actual total because it refers only to money paid to barristers and law firms, not all payments in respect of legal assistance. Figures available in government budget estimates show that the actual total for legal assistance and legal aid (the latter being but a small percentage of the overall sum) reached £1 million in 2003-2004, about double the amount paid in the preceding financial year.
The official forecast for 2004-2005 is that the bill for legal assistance and legal aid will reach just over £1.2 million. While there is no doubt as to the value and importance of the publicly-funded work that lawyers do, there is widespread concern across political and legal circles that the cost of legal assistance needs to be reined in.
Ironically, while some lawyers specialise in civil cases and make decent earnings from publicly-funded work, legal assistance is seen by most of the legal community as one of the least lucrative areas in which to practice.
Divorces and workloads
At the root of the problem is an acute rise in the number of divorce cases over the past three years, alongside a rise in child protection cases. That has forced the Social Services Agency to stretch its resources in order to cope with the increased workload. The urgent nature of child protection issues mean such cases have to be given precedence and dealt with swiftly, requiring the full-time attention of members of the agency’s staff who had previously also handled welfare reports.
The outcome is that since the tail end of 2003, just one social worker has been tasked with writing welfare reports for the courts. These reports are often required in civil cases and are essential before decisions can be taken on issues such as access to children. Each report requires extensive work - including interviews, school and home visits and writing time – and can take up to eight weeks to complete. The extent of the workload is clearly illustrated by the fact that over the past two financial years, the social worker responsible for the job has prepared a total of 53 child welfare reports.
“During the financial year 2003-2004 there was a noted increase in child protection matters, as well as a marked increase in requests for reports which can be directly attributable to the very significant increase in divorce rates in the last three years,” said Yvette del Agua, the Minister for Social Affairs, during the latest session of the House of Assembly.
“The number of social workers involved in writing these reports was reduced and there began to be a delay of reports of three to six months.
“During the financial year 2004-2005 the delay reached a maximum of 12 months.”
Lawyers have told the Chronicle of cases where parents have had to wait for months before they can see their children because of the tailback of reports.
Mrs del Agua told the Chronicle that when the problem first became evident toward the end of 2003, the Social Services Agency implemented a plan to try to address the root cause. In March 2004, it set up a mediation service to try and help families resolve their problems amicably and avoid having to resort to the courts. The service worked to start with and helped about 25 families but, according to the minister, lawyers largely stopped using it after the first few months.
In the face of continued pressure and a clear trend in family break-ups, the Social Services Agency has been left with no other option but to recruit additional staff and will soon advertise for two new social workers to form part of a Court Social Work Team.
“We have tried different answers but it is now obvious that we need to employ more people,” Mrs del Agua said.
The issues arising from matrimonial disputes in the courts are nothing new and have been highlighted often. At the Opening of the Legal Year last month, Chief Justice Derek Schofield pointed to forthcoming reforms to the way matrimonial disputes are resolved. He said Matrimonial Causes Rules were being overhauled but that this had proved more difficult than anticipated, adding that the judiciary shared the government’s concern over the legal assistance bill.
“The new procedures will be designed to get the judges involved at an early stage with a view to taking as much sting out of the divorce as possible,” he said.
The GSLP/Liberals alliance has also tried to draw attention to this matter. For the past two years, opposition member Fabian Picardo has used his annual budget speech to call for additional social services staff to help cope with the workload.
“We have to realise that marital breakdowns are increasing and that there are more and more juvenile offenders,” he told the Chronicle.
“That means more reports than before, both for welfare cases and probation cases.
Employing more qualified staff is the only real answer.”
Divorces of Residents in Gibraltar 1996 - 2004
Source: Supreme Court, as published in government statistics.
Civil Legal Assistance Paid to Law Firms and Barristers
Law Firm/Barrister 2003-04 2004-05:
A MacDonald : 23,969.80
A Nicol QC : £1,500
Attias & Levy : £14,557.00 £4,114.93
C A Gomez & Co £21,299.22 £46,599.73
E C Ellul & Co : £38,845.71
David Pannick QC : £63,000.00
Gold Law : £1,784.50 £18,478.04
Hassans : £31,166.11 £136,236.71
HLB Perez/Rodriguez : £94,202.67 £29,623.60
Hodgson Bilton : £70,225.51
Isola & Isola : £672.84 £69,584.58
J Leighton Williams : £5,000.00
J Evans : £123,583.95 £120,757.72
Marrache & Co : £3,731.60 £91,964.43
Matthias Kelly QC : £14,085.00
Phillips & Co : £255,791.38
Radcliffes le Brasseur : £15,145.47
Ray Pilley : £156,987.25 £12,623.29
S Bullock & Co : £5,648.80 £9,829.00
S R Bossino : £9,737.70 £9,992.16
Triay & Triay : £19,192.07 £110,361.38
Total: £905,811.07 £724,481.08