According to recently revealed figures, more than 50% of parties going to court over a child related issue since the introduction of the main part of the Children and Families Act 2014 are without a family lawyer.
On 22 April 2013 many reforms were made to the family justice system such as the creation of a single family court, putting a 26 week time limit on care proceedings cases and the introduction of compulsory family mediation information meetings for couples seeking a divorce.
Section 11 of the Act, which planned to introduce to law the idea of “equal parenting” when couples divorce is on hold until the autumn. According to the Ministry of Justice, the delay allows them time to raise awareness about the changes, with the aim of making sure that proper support is in place before the new plans come into effect.
Many believe that following a series of funding cuts to both the court system and the Legal Aid system, that many couples who are going through divorce or going through separation cannot get access to legal advice. This means they cannot get help through the court process or to be helped find alternatives to court. These people end up representing themselves.
Data from the Ministry of Justice [MoJ] shows that the removal of Legal Aid for the bulk of private family law cases in 2013 is having a huge impact on the courts. The numbers of parents or grandparents who are representing themselves in child-related cases is up by a third between 2012 and 2013. For the last two months for which figures have been released, 52% of all parties in child-related cases are without legal representation.
This data came to light after a freedom of information request by a legal mediation charity. It shows that in November 2013, 3,941 parties attended court with representation, and 4,174 without. In December, the figures showed 3,481 parties with representation and 3,840 without. It does not appear though that the lack of funding is deterring parties from resolving their disputes through the court, as overall the number of parties going to court is up 5%. Figures also show a sharp fall in the number of parties going to mediation, even though Legal Aid remains for this. Parties going to mediation are down 40% since April 2013.
Cuts to Legal Aid were often justified by fears that lawyers were unnecessarily encouraging people to go to court, whereas it appears that exactly the opposite may be true. Without the help of a lawyer in resolving disputes, more couples end up going to court to reach an agreement. This is to the detriment of every party concerned.
Should we expect to see the Family Court system at crisis point? It is widely expected that the number of parties representing themselves will rise as the number entitled to Legal Aid tails off. Also, the reforms being introduced aim to take pressure off the court system by encouraging collaborative law and mediation.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said that there have always been a number of people who prefer to represent themselves in court and that judges have the knowledge to support them through this. The MoJ also said they are committed to increasing the use of mediation, and that millions of pounds was dedicated to this. The MoJ is also monitoring the impact which cuts to the Legal Aid budget is having.
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