Children suffer as cuts to legal aid penalise parents in court

Outcomes may be unfair when one can afford legal representation and one cannot, say magistrates

Almost half of all parents fighting to get access to their children through the courts are being made to do so without legal advice, family magistrates warn today.

A survey of nearly 500 justices reveals that 46 per cent of the people seen by magistrates in private family courts are now representing themselves.

Almost of all of the magistrates questioned said they believed that self-representation was having a negative impact on the court’s work – leading to delays and potential unfairness if one parent is legally represented but the other is not. 

“We and our legal adviser do our best, but time is not on our side,” one magistrate said.

“An impossible two-tier system has been created, between those that have [legal advice] and those that don’t.’

The rise in self-representation comes as a result of changes to legal aid provision, which came into effect in April 2013, means that many more people are no longer eligible for financial support in family court proceedings.

Between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of self-represented parties in child-related cases rose by 40 per cent.

The Government maintains that self-representation is no barrier to justice, but this is now being questioned by magistrates.

The survey for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent on Sunday, in partnership with the Magistrates’ Association, surveyed a sample group of 461 magistrates sitting in a variety of courts across the UK.

The survey found:

* 46 per cent of those seen by magistrates in the private family courts represented themselves;

* 97 per cent of magistrates who saw a person representing themselves believed that such self-representation had a negative impact on the court’s work;

* 62 per cent of magistrates said litigants in person had a negative impact on the court’s work most or all of the time.

One respondent replying to the survey said: “In family [courts], if one side is represented and the other not, it makes it very difficult to have a fair hearing, as litigants in person find it difficult to cross-examine and don’t understand the process.”

Another added: “Justice is limited to those who can afford it.”

Steve Matthews, chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s Family Courts Committee, said there was unfairness across the system. “Savings in legal aid costs on family cases disadvantages those people unable to afford lawyers, and risks injustice for children,” he said.

“It is evident to every family magistrate that the rise in litigants in person in private-law children cases is having a profound effect on the effectiveness of court operations. 

“This is echoed by all other family judges,’ Mr Matthews added.

Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said: “Family courts are an absolute disgrace. People are representing themselves, so cases that should take an hour take a day.”

Fiona Weir, chief executive of the charity Gingerbread, which supports single parents, said the charity had seen a marked increase in legal enquiries. “The cuts to legal aid have had a significant impact on single-parent families,” she said.

“We have had hundreds of calls from parents who cannot get legal aid and may now have to represent themselves in court.”

Jerry Karlin, chair of Families Need Fathers, said: “It is often the only option left available to them to stand a chance of maintaining a relationship with their children.

“Representing yourself in court can be incredibly challenging for parents caught up in emotional, high-conflict separations, and the stress of these situations means that not all parents are able to present their case effectively. If these parents have trouble speaking in public, or speak English as a second language, their difficulties can be compounded.” 

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson defended the situation. “Not only do we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, but we had reached a situation where court was the default option no matter whether it was best suited to resolve the issue before it,” he said.

“Legal aid remains available where people most need legal help and we are putting more money into mediation as it is less stressful, less expensive and more successful for people trying to resolve disputes about children or money. We listened closely to concerns raised about family justice’s legal aid reform and made further changes in response, like making it easier for people to get the evidence they need to make their legal aid claim.”

Part of the Bill introducing the changes to legal aid also created the Exceptional Case Fund, designed to hear applications for those who might still be eligible for financial support even if they no longer fit the legal aid criteria.

Analysis of Ministry of Justice statistics reveals that between 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014, there 1,519 requests for exceptional funding. Over half of those applications were for funding in family law cases. Of those 828 applications made on family law issues, fewer than 1 per cent were granted.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum