Government plans to support litigants in person doesn't address the wider problems

Published: 29th October 2014

New plans announced by the government last week to support litigants in person have been criticised by national family law organisation Resolution, with their Vice-Chair labelling them as "a sticking plaster for a family justice system left seriously wounded by cuts to legal aid".

The announced plans, made on Thursday 23rd October, includes more supportive online information for people representing themselves in court and a new strategy aimed at providing better practical legal support in the civil and family courts for litigants in person, funded by the Ministry of Justice. It was also announced that a new 'supporting separating parents in disputes' helpline is to be launched, run by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS).

The purpose of these new plans is to ensure that separating couples and court users who represent themselves have access to as much advice, information and guidance as possible, in order to help them to settle conflict in the most 'appropriate and proportionate way'.

However, Nigel Shepherd, Vice-Chair of Resolution says that these new plans still don't address the wider problems that the family courts face due to the removal of legal aid.

"These organisations do some great work and I am sure that this measure will help some self-represented litigants who have already reached the courts. However, I fear that this initiative is more about supporting the courts, rather than the families trying to navigate them," said Nigel Shepherd.

"The problems stemming from the loss of most family legal aid reach far beyond the courtrooms. It’s a sticking plaster for a family justice system left seriously wounded by cuts to legal aid. Separating families need more comprehensive support than assistance in the courts, which should be the final resort for the majority of people.”

"It seems strange to me that this Government has vowed to help people resolve their family disputes out of court, but today’s announcement is only going to help people who end up there. The notion that the first thing you do when you decide to separate is walk into a court building is at best misguided.”

"We know that solicitor negotiation and referrals to mediation and other forms of out of court dispute resolution are hugely successful in helping many people to resolve their differences more effectively and with a minimum of conflict. Surely this is where the Government should be focusing resource, if it is truly committed to helping people find fair, appropriate and lasting outcomes for them and their families.”

"What people need is access to professional legal advice early in their separation and during the process, to talk through their options, signpost to support services and find the right way forward for them. This is what Resolution members do day in, day out, and it can often help people avoid the courts and, more importantly, minimise the conflict and the impact on their children.”

"The signposting to other appropriate services and help for separating couples is what our pilot Family Matters scheme - funded by the DWP – does for people no longer eligible for legal aid, and it is seeing great results. We’d like to see more resources dedicated to providing initial advice about how to manage your separation, and help people avoid going to court in the first place."

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