Published: 4 June 2014
Magistrates in the family courts have warned that legal aid cuts are penalising low income and single parent families - creating an unfair two-tier system of those that can afford legal representation and those who cannot.
A new study conducted by the Magistrates' Association has revealed that almost 50% of people seen by judges in the family courts had represented themselves. Of the 461 judges across the UK that were surveyed, 97% said that self-representation can have a negative impact on the work of the courts, causing unnecessary delays and unbalancing proceedings if only one side can afford legal advice. The survey also found that 62% of judges said that litigants in person had a negative impact on proceedings most or all of the time.
"Savings in legal aid costs on family cases disadvantages those people unable to afford lawyers, and risks injustice for children," said the Chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s Family Courts Committee.
"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."
An increasing number of parents have had no choice but to represent themselves in the family courts due to changes in the legal aid system, introduced in April 2013. These changes meant that a large number of families were no longer eligible for the help and financial support that legal aid provides.
Single-parent charity Gingerbread have also reported a rise in the number of enquiries for legal advice following the removal of legal aid. Their Chief Exec Fiona Weir said, "The cuts to legal aid have had a significant impact on single-parent families. We have had hundreds of calls from parents who cannot get legal aid and may now have to represent themselves in court."
Other charities and family groups have also voiced their concern. A representative from 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."
The Ministry of Justice were quick to respond and have offered a defence on the cuts to legal aid in the family courts. A spokesperson said, "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."
"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."
K J Smith Solicitors have a team of professional family mediations, trained to help resolve conflict and to help separating couples come to an amicable solution. For more information, or if you would like to arrange a free consultation with one of our team, please contact us on 01491 630000 (Henley on Thames), 0118 418 1000 (Reading), 01753 325000 (Windsor) or 020 7070 0330 (Central London).