Government cuts to legal aid which came into force on the first of April this year are set to cause enormous court delays and make justice inaccessible to many people. The changes have been met with derision from court staff and judges with strikes seen at courts around the country.
Private children law matters such as disputes over contact and residence as well as financial divorce disputes will no longer qualify for legal aid (family mediation cases will still qualify). The courts are already under too much strain and this is only going to increase following the changes as litigants who cannot afford legal fees attempt to represent themselves in court. Litigants in person tend not to understand the court process meaning that cases take longer and members of court staff are dragged in to help them. Indeed, the delays this causes will ultimately outweigh any savings the government hoped to make by cutting legal aid.
The changes are also unfair for private clients who face a litigant in person in court because it drives their legal fees up and makes it more difficult to recover costs. Lawyers will not be able to interact as they normally would with the other side because a litigant in person is not likely to know the ins and outs of procedure.
Some people have argued that these changes could be positive because they will encourage people to try and settle matters outside court. Whilst this may be true, it doesn’t excuse crippling the court system and causing huge delays to those with cases in need of litigation.
Litigation inevitably carries risks however these should be limited to the possibility of a disappointing outcome. The legal aid cuts mean that litigants face the risk of not being assigned a judge and having their case adjourned following enormous expense and stress.
The good news for those going through divorce is that there are alternative methods of dispute resolution available which can help to reduce the expense, acrimony and delay involved. Family mediation and collaborative law for example give parties more control over their divorce than litigation and can save time and money.
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