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Litigants in person are causing courtroom dramas

Leading family law charity says calls to its helpline have soared and most callers are confused and do not know what to do

4 June 2014

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A new survey has confirmed a rise in people representing themselves in family courts following Legal Aid cuts. Carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Independent on Sunday and the Magistrates' Association, the survey polled a sample group of 461 magistrates sitting in a variety of courts across the UK. It found almost half of those seen by magistrates in private family courts are litigants in person, and that nearly two thirds of magistrates think this has a negative impact on the court's work.

Jane Robey, chief executive of National Family Mediation (NFM) says, "The overwhelming majority of couples who have decided to separate believe their only option is to head straight to court. Legal Aid cuts mean more and more people are representing themselves when they get there, as confirmed by a new survey of magistrates.

"The government shot itself in the foot with its swingeing cuts. Savings they made must be weighed up against the increased cost of extended court proceedings - and the severe delays in court traffic. For tens of thousands of families across England and Wales there are profound consequences. They cannot afford high cost legal fees, so are going to court, representing themselves. There are the long delays and the possible unfairness of one partner being represented and the other not."

The NFM believes the a 'courtroom first' culture is deeply flawed with better alternatives to settle disputes that puts children first: "Family mediation can provide durable, common sense solutions for life that avoid a courtroom drama that too often turns into a tragedy, especially for children caught in the middle of their parents' disputes.

"And Legal Aid is still available for mediation - a cheaper and quicker way of resolving family issues than heading straight off to court," says Robey.

The survey echoes comments by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Thomas, who said cuts in legal aid eligibility have 'undoubtedly' caused a significant increase in the number of people representing themselves in court cases, leading to much more pressure on the court system.

"The public are also confused, lacking understanding and awareness of the processes involved when seeking to resolve a divorce or separation." Robey added that since the Legal Aid cuts, calls to the 0300 4000 636 NFM helpline have soared, with staff now taking more than 1,400 calls per month. "Most callers are confused and do not know what to do first, or where to turn," added Robey.

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Marriage & Civil partnership