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Courts rapidly becoming lawyer-free zones

Child contact, residency and maintenance payments issues are being decided on without the input of solicitors or barristers

13 October 2014

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More than half of all parents are going to court without legal representation when seeking to contest arrangements for their children, new research has found.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show that in England and Wales between April and June 2014, 60 per cent went to court without a lawyer to decide issues such as child contact, residency and maintenance payments.

The MoJ statistics were revealed under the Freedom of Information Act request from Marc Lopatin, founder of Lawyer Supported Mediation. He commented family courts were rapidly becoming lawyer-free zones, consequently devastating low-income families and creating delays for parents attending court.

"Ministers should admit they got it wrong," he said. "They need to stop seeing lawyers and mediators as an either or. Both professionals working in tandem can keep families out of court and promote the interests of the child."

Legal aid

In the period of 2012/13, before legal aid was withdrawn from lawyers in most family disputes, the proportion of unrepresented parents at court for the same matters stood at 42 per cent. The latest quarterly figures for 2014/15 show this has increased to 62 per cent.

The MoJ figures also showed the number of unrepresented parties at court contesting financial matters has risen to over 30 per cent for first time. Of those parties at court to resolve how property and pensions should be split, a third were now without a solicitor or barrister.

Faced with the prospect of going to court unrepresented, Lopatin believes "many parents are simply turning their back on the family justice system".

In September, the MoJ released official figures showing that the number cases featuring ex-partners going to court over child arrangements or finances fell to 9,291 between April and June 2014. The drop in cases equalled 40 per cent compared to the same period in 2013.

The MoJ figures also showed that the number of publicly funded mediations commenced between April and June 2014 had fallen by over 50 per cent, compared to the same period in 2012 when legal aid was still in place for referring solicitors. Lopatin says these figures demonstrated that parents were not opting for family mediation instead of going to court.

Denying access

In August, statistics from CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) showed there were 2,928 new private law cases in July which amounted to a 36 per cent fall from August 2013. Between April 2013 and March 2014, the number of new cases rose 2 per cent from the previous financial year to 46,414. While new cases for the first six months were 15 per cent higher than the same period during the previous year.

Chair of the Law Society's family law committee, Naomi Angell, warned that falling numbers of parents going to court would lead to children being denied access to their parents, which would undermine the concept of shared parenting being introduced by the government in the Children and Families Bill.

Meanwhile, national family law organisation Resolution recently polled its members to reveal that reforms to the family courts were causing significant delays for cases involving financial and children issues. Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, said: "A survey of Resolution members, conducted three months after the 22 April reforms were introduced, shows that there have been significant delays to cases in the family court. Forty-five per cent of our members report that cases involving financial disputes, are taking longer, and 37 per cent report the same for cases relating to arrangements for children.

Edwards added: "The lack of legal aid means fewer people are talking to solicitors about their separation, who would previously have signposted them towards mediation."

Edwards said Resolution members were working hard to help people resolve matters outside of court, but it wasn't possible for everyone. She said children of separating parents were being left in limbo while their parents waited for a court date.

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