Published: 21st December 2017
A recent survey conducted by the Magistrates Association has found that 68% of those in family court hearings are unrepresented, which is an increase of 27% since 2014, the year following significant cuts to legal aid. Such situations where parents are not represented often lead to incorrect decisions, but more importantly a tough, long process for the children to endure.
In cases where the parents have no legal representation and are forced to represent themselves, children will often face a difficult and upsetting time; and where one parent has legal representation and the other does not, the parent with representation is likely to win what may have been a confrontational and gruelling battle.
Family court Magistrates see many different cases that can have an impact on the lives of children. Some of the most significantly troubling cases for children include financial support disputes, residence and contact issues, interventions by the local authorities, and domestic violence.
John Bache, the chair of the Magistrates Association, suggests that more hearings are becoming unfair due to the lack of representation, which is having a drastic impact on children: ‘The problem is that if one side is represented by a professional lawyer and the other isn’t represented, that must be intrinsically unfair. In family [hearings] the magistrates will do their best to ensure a fair hearing for both sides, but as in criminal hearings, you can’t put questions in their mouth. The impact on children will stem from that because if there hasn’t been proper representation, the children won’t be achieving necessarily the best outcome in terms of relationship with their parents. You’re deciding about access and how it should be divided between two parents. To make the best possible decision you need as much information as possible.’
Legal Aid Cuts
When making the cuts to legal aid, the Government had hoped that limited access to legal aid would encourage low-income families to choose meditation rather than continue their argument over divorce. The Government has previously admitted that this has not happened as intended, meaning that friendly agreements without court intervention have significantly decreased, with many looking to go through the courts without representation. The cuts to legal aid have in fact cost the courts more money in the long run, and meditation is of course the best route for everybody involved, especially the children.
Many magistrates believe that the legal aid cuts have meant that parents now have to deal with the hearings, as well as going through the whole situation on a personal level, without the support or advice of a lawyer. It is also said that outbursts occur more often than ever due to the frustration felt by those that are unrepresented, especially when their partner holds more power by having sufficient legal support.
Jo Edwards, the lead for family law reform at Resolution, said: ‘Sadly, the findings of this survey tally with the experience of our members across the country. The rise in litigants in person that has followed the cuts to legal aid has had a devastating impact on our family justice system, putting almost unmanageable pressures on our courts and, crucially, forcing countless vulnerable people to navigate an often intimidating process at one of the most emotionally traumatic periods of their lives. This is borne out from what magistrates are saying today, and one can only imagine what the long-term impact of this is on children of those navigating the system unaided.’
Many Magistrates have also voiced their concerns over the fact that legal aid is only allowed in private family cases including domestic violence victims, suggesting that false allegations could arise as a result of this. Their concerns include the fact that some women claim that domestic abuse has taken place just to be given legal aid, whereas it may be more difficult for men to secure legal aid when compared to women.
The Ministry of Justice has stated that as many issues as possible should be solved without the intervention of the courts, with mediation representing a quicker, less stressful way reach an amicable solution.
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