With effect from April 1 2013, the scope of family law services covered by legal aid was reduced significantly. Legal aid funding is now only available in very limited circumstances such as cases of domestic abuse and mediation.
Overall, legal aid funding has been withdrawn for the most frequently-seen family disputes including children matters and this has resulted in some shocking statistics. Since April last year, the number of mothers representing themselves has risen to 52% with almost 20,000 more parents attending court without any legal representation.
The government cuts were intended to discourage parents from attending court and for matters to be resolved outside the courtroom, possibly with the assistance of mediation. However, in particularly sensitive cases of child care issues, not all parents are able to agree on these matters and require the court to assist them in determining what is best for the child.
So, as the judge has the final say, is it really that bad that parents are now attending court without legal representation? In total last year the family courts dealt with just fewer than 20,000 more unrepresented parents than the previous year. This has created unnecessary pressure on the courts and so all parties involved in the court system are suffering as a result of the rise in the number of litigants in person. There are longer courtroom delays and this has a knock on effect on the number of cases staying within the court timetable. In some cases parties may be given a Hearing date and then have to wait in court all day only to be told at the end that they have not been allocated to a judge. It has also led to a greater pressure on court staff, who are being more heavily relied on to give legal advice although not qualified to do so.
It is a case of parents being left to fend for themselves and in particular, it is women and the vulnerable that have had their right to access to justice compromised. Without the necessary legal expertise many parents are left unaware of their legal position and rights and so reaching an agreement between the parties is even less likely. This may lead to long term effects on children who are left dealing with feuding parents. The process often will take much longer as several adjournments may be needed due to parents not turning up well equipped for the Hearing that day – again meaning their children are the ones who suffer.
The government suggests that mediation is promoted on a greater scale and argues that mediation is still continuing to be readily available to those needing legal aid. They claim that more parents need to explore mediation and come to an agreement outside the court run. Of course, legally aided mediation is not available to all and in some circumstances the parties will not be suitable.