More parents are attending family court without a lawyer.
Due to changes to the law in 2013, Legal Aid was withdrawn from most private family law cases, leading to a rise in parents attending court without representation from a family law solicitor or barrister.
Government figures show that in 2013/14 just under 20,000 more parents attended the family court with no representation compared to the previous year. This means that over half of those attending court in relation to a private family law matter did not have a qualified lawyer to represent them. The cuts to Legal Aid came in spite of protests from the judiciary that it would increase pressure on the court system, leading to delays and subsequent damage to the well-being of children and family relations.
Politicians and family law pressure groups have spoken out against the cuts and their impact on families:
The Chair of Families Need Fathers, Jerry Karlin, has said: “It is staggering that so many parents are effectively being left to fend for themselves. We urgently need to develop affordable and compelling services that strive to keep parents from the courtroom. Children need their parents to communicate effectively with each other so that conflict can be addressed and ultimately resolved.”
It was hoped that the drop in Legal Aid funding would be mitigated by enhanced funding for mediation, with the goal being that parents would negotiate and communicate outside of court rather than in it. However this has not proved to be the case, with the government’s Mediation Task Force reporting that take up of mediation has fallen since the cuts to Legal Aid.
The Law Society Gazette described the use of mediation in some areas of the country as virtually “non-existant” in their recent article. Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Justice Minister noted that “Not only does it cost the system more money when people turn up in court without a lawyer as the whole process is much slower, but the experience for those concerned can be traumatic and harrowing.”
So what does this mean for clients who don’t have a family law solicitor?
Family law involves a great deal of procedure, form-filling and paperwork. On top of the trauma of relationship breakdown or a family crisis this can be too much for many parents, and understandably so. One of the guiding principles of family law is that each family is different and the decisions of judges must be tailor made to the individual family concerned. Therefore each case requires parents to put forward evidence to represent their point of view. Distressed or angry parents are not always in the best position to do this clearly so that the judge appreciates their point and can understand their evidence.
Time and time again clients tell us that what they appreciate most about our assistance in their legal matter is that their family law solicitor puts across their points clearly and directly to the court, taking a great deal of stress and worry out of their hands. Parents without representation don’t have to worry about filing deadlines, which additional forms to complete, even something as simple as how to correctly address a judge (different types of judges sit in the family court and there are different forms of address for each type). This is a great relief and allows the parent to focus on their primary goal: getting family life back on track.
The government shows no sign of making a U-turn on the cuts to Legal Aid. As a result some family law solicitors have become more flexible in how cases are funded. In the past, typically a solicitor would ask for a large lump sum up front to cover the costs of the entire case.
At Grayfords we feel this is unfair on parents, many of whom are adjusting to reduced budgets in a one parent household. That’s why we request funding from clients for each stage of the cases separately, in manageable chunks. We aim to provide a high quality service that is value for money for our clients.
What can you do to keep costs down?
At the outset of your case you should give your solicitor a clear idea of your finances so that they can advise on what options you have and how costs can be kept down – perhaps writing a stern letter to the other party will do the trick, rather than a court application which would attract fees and time spent on preparation.
Be organised! Keep a note of any relevant dates and what happened on those dates so you can give your solicitor a clear picture.
Think about what you can do for yourself. Your solicitor should be more than happy to discuss parts of your case that you might be able to handle yourself rather than get them involved. For example, many solicitors will be happy for you to attempt to negotiate with an ex-partner regarding contact before drafting up an agreement rather than doing the negotiation themselves.
Mediation may be useful. If you’re not in a position to discuss and negotiate between yourselves it can be helpful to have an independent mediator to keep discussions on track. They can then pass the results of the discussion to a solicitor to be drafted into a formal agreement.