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Categorized | Civil Law

Family courts system at breaking point

Family courts system at breaking point

The family courts system is at breaking point due to delays caused by unrepresented litigants and overstretched judges according to Resolution, the body that represents lawyers and professionals in divorce hearings.

Jo Edwards, a solicitor and the newly appointed chair of Resolution, fears that a two-tier system of justice is emerging where private clients opt out of overcrowded, slow-moving public courts in favour of private arbitration hearings.

Cuts to legal aid have deprived separating couples of funding for representation and legal advice, leaving them to navigate their own way through the courts as they attempt to reach settlements on complex, emotional issues of child custody and division of family assets. People representing themselves and deriving no real guidance tend to bring along more supporters, increasing the number of “raised voices” in family courts and the level of tension, she said.

The result is that as many as two-thirds of cases working their way through the family courts now involve at least one side which has no lawyer to provide help. Such cases take more time because judges have to help litigants in person develop their claims. “People are just giving up and not seeing their children because they don’t know how to go about it,” Edwards said.

She added that the government is also cutting off its nose to spite its face. Government wants more people to choose mediation, yet publicly-funded mediation numbers are down. “We warned before the cuts were introduced that if you remove solicitors and Citizens Advice Bureaux from the equation, you remove the key source of referrals into mediation. We also emphasised the importance of legal advice during the mediation process” she said.

Family lawyers have been warned to brace themselves for plummeting fees as the time lag on the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) comes to an end, an analysis of Ministry of Justice data has revealed. Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: “We always knew that after LASPO came into effect, there would be a time lag before its full impacts were felt by firms. The effects will be ‘biting hard’ in this financial year, he said.

One of the most senior judges in England and Wales has thrown down a direct challenge to the government over legal aid by suggesting courts spend money in defiance of Ministry of Justice cuts to ensure justice is done. Sir James Munby, the president of the family division of the high court, has ruled that the court service should pay for lawyers if the Legal Aid Agency refuses to provide them.

He said: “There has been a drastic reduction in the number of represented litigants in private law cases. The number of cases where both parties are represented has fallen very significantly, the number of cases where one party is represented has also fallen significantly and, correspondingly, the number of cases where neither party is represented has risen very significantly.”
Munby’s judgment covered three cases where fathers, who wish to “play a role in the life of [their] child”, have no lawyers to argue their case, while the mothers have been granted public funding to pay for legal representation.

Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said: “(Secretary of State) Grayling’s tank is running on empty. When senior judges are overruling him in the family courts over his legal aid reforms it can only mean one thing: what little support his reforms had is well and truly tapped out.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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