On the eve of "D-Day" – that's Divorce Day, the first Monday back to work after the festive period, when warring couples are more likely to register for a divorce – lawyers warn that tens of thousands of people could find splitting up harder and more costly this year. And the number of those turning to "DIY divorce kits" is expected to surge.
One in five family lawyers surveyed by the accountancy firm Grant Thornton said more people were appearing in court without legal representation due to cuts in public funding. Once legal aid is removed from most divorce cases, in April, that figure is expected to rise again.
"This could put an even greater strain on an already stretched system, leading to longer delays in determinations and a detrimental impact on children," said Liz Edwards, chair of the family lawyers' organisation Resolution. "While the reform of legal aid will help cut government spending, I am concerned that the social cost will be far greater in the long run."
More than 117,000 divorces were registered in England and Wales in 2011, down 1.7 per cent since 2010, when divorces increased for the first time in some years. More than a third of marriages are expected to end in divorce by their 20th anniversary. On average, marriages are expected to last 32 years.
From April, £350m will be cut from the £2.2bn legal-aid bill, and state-funded legal advice for spouses arguing over wealth or custody of their children will be limited to cases that involve domestic abuse. Around 200,000 fewer cases – a 75 per cent reduction – will be eligible for legal help, according to the Government's own impact assessment. More than 32,000 cases will no longer be eligible for legal representation in court.
Susan Eskinazi, a family law solicitor, said: "The shrinking of legal aid will have a considerable impact on the legal landscape."
The Co-op recently launched its own do-it-yourself divorce packs, starting at £99 up to £475 for a fully managed split. Tesco already has its own version, as does WH Smith.
But experts suggest there will soon be a proliferation of websites offering similar packs for those who cannot afford to pay legal costs. Ms Eskinazi is acting as a consultant on a site to be launched tomorrow called Divorce Depot. Customers pay £99 to access an online service assisting them with aspects of the divorce such as dissolution and arrangements for children, via flowcharts, Q&As, supporting documents and videos to explain how to complete paperwork.
Charities are also helping those who arrive at court unattended. Judith March, director of the Personal Support Unit, a part-government-funded charity working with "litigants in person" – or people without legal representation in courts – said the organisation had seen a 35 per cent increase in the number of users in the past 12 months. She added that the system is going to struggle. "A cocktail of factors means more people are on their own in court. Add in the [Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act] and, from April, people who previously got some form of legal-aid support won't get it.... Cases could take longer and it's unlikely people will get the same outcome without representation."
But the Government insists there are alternatives to court. Last week, it announced an additional £10m funding for mediation, where the average cost of resolving property and finance disputes is around £500 for a publicly funded client, compared with £4,000 in court.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Mediation is often more effective, less costly and less acrimonious than court proceedings. However, we do recognise that it will not be suitable for everyone and so are ensuring legal aid remains available where there is an urgent or genuine need."
But others worry that some of the most vulnerable people may still end up "falling through the cracks". David Emmerson, chair of Resolution's legal aid committee, said: "A father who seeks contact with his children after separation, where the mother refuses contact, will neither be able to attend nor engage in mediation."
Case study: 'Without legal aid I would not be able to see my children'
Graeme Bennett, 48, is a Tesco delivery worker and father-of-two from Dorset. He divorced his wife of five years in December 2011. Mediation was impossible and he received legal aid to resolve the issue of child custody in court.
"When we divorced, my wife and I were disagreeing on everything. The idea that we could have gone through mediation is laughable – we weren't speaking or seeing each other. I received legal aid on condition I paid £80 a month of it. I got everything I asked for in terms of access to my children. I see them every other weekend and every Wednesday on school holidays, a weekly phone call, and I see them within 48 hours of birthdays. I would have none of this without legal aid; it was immensely important. This legislation is like a slap in the face."