June 6, 2014

The haves and have nots following Legal Aid cuts

This week a survey conducted by the Independent newspaper and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has confirmed that our family courts have become a two-tier system – for those who can afford legal advice and those who cannot.

Figures reveal that nearly half of all parents fighting to gain access to their children are doing so without legal advice, which only emphasises the unfairness of the current system – particularly if one parent is represented by a solicitor and the other is not.

Divorce is stressful enough without the added trauma of not having the professional support to guide you through the process

The survey, conducted in partnership with the Magistrates’ Association, surveyed 461 magistrates sitting in a variety of courts across the UK and revealed that justice really is limited to those who can afford it.

These results do not surprise me. Readers of our blog will be aware that we raised concerns about the cuts to legal aid back in 2013 when Lord Neuberger warned that that there would be serious repercussions as a result.

My fear has always been the impact these cuts would have on families and children – and unfortunately, it would seem I am now proved right.

And it is not just the children who are disadvantaged: it is also the court system itself which is failing. Cases which should only take an hour are now taking a whole day because parents representing themselves often do not understand the process, or are too stressed to present their case effectively.

There is also a risk that courts may make the wrong decision in cases where litigants in person don’t know what information to bring before the court.

So what is the solution? Some would say the court issues could be solved by increasing the number of judges and staff but this is unlikely to happen. Realistically, the problems flow not because of a lack of staff, but because there are many people representing themselves in contested and bitter fights in court.

Although the Government believes that mediation is panacea of all ills, it really only applies to couples who have both signed up willingly to the scheme and want to help themselves. Even this fails more often than not because both sides are so entrenched in their own opinions that it usually takes a court to resolve the issue or impose solutions.

The issue is much more complex and needs to be revisited. By removing legal aid, the problems that have been under the surface are now being exposed which is why it is important to take action sooner rather than later.

Incredulously the Ministry of Justice states that legal aid remains available, yet the department’s own statistics reveal that between 1 April 2013 and 31 March 2014, less than 1 per cent of the 828 family law applications for legal aid were successful.  Further proof perhaps that government is out of touch, or worse, doesn’t care?

Should the government re-examine the issue of family law and legal aid? What is the impact for the future?  Please share your views by leaving a comment below, drop us an e-mail or tweet us @helpwithdivorce