UK: Government Cost-Cutting to Increase False Allegations of Abuse

As many know, the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government in the United Kingdom is bent on cutting government spending.  It’s doing that in a lot of different areas, such as spending for higher education that’s caused rioting in the streets.

The latest cost-cutting scheme, reported on here, is to no longer provide government funding for divorce cases (This London, 1/4/11).  That may or may not make sense, depending on whom you’re listening to.  Some argue that the cuts will just mean more people representing themselves in their divorce matters.  That, so the argument goes, will result in less efficiency, more delays and therefore greater expenditures on court staff.

But whatever the actual result of the cuts, one thing is certain; there’s an exception to the “no money for divorce cases” rule.  Those involving an allegation of domestic violence or abuse will receive governmental support.  In short, the British government will, as a cost-cutting measure, promote allegations of domestic violence and abuse.

Not surprisingly, barristers are alarmed.

Hundreds of men will face false allegations of domestic violence and child abuse because of legal aid reforms, barristers warned today…

Peter Lodder, chairman of the Bar Council, said the changes created “a perverse incentive’ for unjustified claims.

“We already get far too many unjustified allegations of this sort and our fear is that there is going to be an enormous increase of this sort of allegation,’ he said.

“Just imagine the unscrupulous lawyer, or adviser, telling a woman that the only way that she’s going to get legal aid is if she says that she’s been knocked about or that there is a problem with the children.’

I disagree with Lodder on one thing.  When he says the government’s action creates a “perverse incentive” for false allegations, I would say it creates another perverse incentive. 

After all, it’s not like having the government pay your barrister is the only one.  The main perverse incentive to false allegations of abuse is that it gets the wife/mother an array of benefits, principally primary or sole child custody during the pendency of the case.  And that tends to morph into primary or sole custody post-divorce.

Face it, those same “unscrupulous” lawyers and advisers whom Lodder fears will advise women to fabricate claims of abuse because it will get their bills paid already do exactly that because it’ll assist the women in custody cases.  This is not exactly news.

A similar situation obtains here in the United States.  For many years now attorneys practicing family law have been trying to call attention to the vast numbers of false allegations of abuse used solely as a tactic to get custody.  As the former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, Elaine Epstein once said,

“Everyone knows that restraining orders and orders to vacate are granted to virtually all who apply…In many cases, allegations of abuse are now used for tactical advantage.’

And overwhelmingly, those restraining orders are issued against men and fathers.  One 2005 study done for the U.S. Department of Justice found that 77% of domestic violence restraining orders were issued against men.  That’s true despite the fact that men and women commit DV equally.

What’s truly bizarre about the new British measure is that it’s framed as one to control costs.  Isn’t it clear that offering a monetary incentive to level allegations of abuse will tend to increase the number of allegations?  That’s exactly what the barristers are concerned about.  And as the number of allegations increases, so will government expenditures.

What makes sense is to provide aid on the basis of financial need.  Some people who shouldn’t remain married truly are too poor to pay the fees and costs required for divorce.  Those people should receive appropriate assistance.  If a particular level of earnings were established for a person to receive aid, the government would know pretty accurately what it would need to budget each year for divorcing parents.  That would help to control costs.

Finally, the government has been complaining loudly and publicly about the adversarial nature of divorce.  It rightly points to that as expensive, time-consuming and destructive of families.  Recommendations for changes to family law are widely expected to aim at reducing conflict in divorce and custody matters.

So, right on schedule, comes this change that will do precisely the opposite.  By encouraging false allegations of abuse, the government will be doing its part to increase the acrimony.

Your tax dollars – er, pounds – at work.

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