Cuts to legal aid force more people to represent themselves

Family courts under pressure as an increasing number of litigants in divorce and child custody cases attend without a lawyer

Nearly half of people going to family courts to resolve matters involving their children are having to represent themselves, new figures reveal.

Figures obtained by a Freedom of Information (FoI) request suggest a rise in the number of people attending family courts without a lawyer of around 30 per cent following dramatic cuts to the legal aid budget.

In an attempt to save £350m a year, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) changed the rules from April last year so that some types of cases, including divorce and child-custody proceedings, are no longer eligible for public funding.

The legal profession held its second court walkout on Friday over the reduction in legal aid payments and proposals for further cuts affecting family, criminal and other cases.

The MoJ statistics showed that 21,574 people – 45 per cent – going to court over child-related issues were not represented by a lawyer in the six months from April to September last year. This compared with 33,294 (37 per cent) for the previous 12 months. If this trend continues over the rest of 2013/14, it would mean there had been a 30 per cent rise.

The figures relate mainly to cases over parental responsibility, contact with children and where the children should live, but also other issues such as guardianship.

Fiona Kendall, a partner at divorce solicitors Jones Myers, said that people with no legal knowledge were being forced to represent themselves in court. "Some of these people can't afford legal services," she said, adding that this was leading to "difficulties", such as delays in court.

"Someone who isn't properly represented needs additional help and the trouble is that there just isn't the court time for it… we don't think that [the Government understands] the pressure this has built up on court times, these are areas which are difficult to define on a balance sheet."

Before last year's policy change, the MoJ set aside an extra £10m for publicly funded family mediation proceedings. But between April and November 2013, the number of such mediations fell by 36 per cent, against the same period in 2012.

Marc Lopatin, founder of LawyerSupportedMediation.com, who submitted the FoI request, said the MoJ should have helped solicitors and mediators work together to bring down the cost of cases.

"Instead, Ministry of Justice policy has driven a wedge between the very professionals that could be reducing the pressure on the courts. It's surely time for an urgent rethink," he said.

And Jusleen Arora, of Castle Park Solicitors in Leicester, said: "Mediation has dropped because solicitors aren't referring clients, people aren't going to solicitors because they can't afford to as legal aid's not available, which [means] more court cases."

The MoJ said it was "closely monitoring the impact of the legal-aid changes". A Justice Ministry spokesman said: "There have always been a significant number of people representing themselves in court … and we provide information and guidance to help them. Judges also have expertise in supporting them, for example by explaining procedures and what is expected."

People represented themselves in about half of private law cases, which include family, property, trade, labour and other issues, in 2012.

The spokesman said that the average time taken to complete cases had remained "steady since April 2013" and stressed the Government's support for mediation. "We are committed to making sure that more people make use of it rather than go through the confrontational and stressful experience of going to court," he said.

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