New figures from the MoJ show that over half of parties (52%) involved in private child matters do not have legal representation.
The data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) shows that since the legal aid cuts were introduced in April last year, more people than ever are choosing to represent themselves in court. There are now fears that the increased numbers of people representing themselves may cause delays, resulting in the waste of court time and increasing the cost to the taxpayer.
The number of unrepresented parties (also called litigants in person), either parents or grandparents, in child-related proceedings has increased year-on-year by a third, from 25,656 between April and December 2012, to 34,249 between April and December 2013.
Although legal aid cannot be accessed for private family matters, parties can still receive funding for mediation, a process which is used as an alternative to settling matters through the courts. Supporters of mediation claim that it is a good alternative which is normally much cheaper, quicker and less stressful than going to court.
By providing funding for mediation the government hoped to actively encourage parties to use mediation rather than going to court. However, with the number of parties attending court increasing by 5% year-on-year, it is becoming apparent that the government incentive is not working.
The Law Society has warned that without the provision of sound legal advice people are not aware of the alternative options to court proceedings such as mediation, and are therefore not using alternative dispute resolution services, instead heading straight to court with little or no information about the process or what to expect.
The Law Society has warned that following the legal aid cuts many separating and divorcing couples cannot get access to legal advice to help them through the court process, or find alternatives to court, causing delay as they have to represent themselves.
Head of legal aid policy at the Law Society Richard Miller said: ‘The truth is emerging: far from stirring up unnecessary litigation between the parties, as was frequently falsely alleged as a justification for the legal aid cuts, lawyers are very effective at steering separating couples away from the courts.
‘Without lawyers to resolve disputes less contentiously, more couples end up fighting in court, to their own detriment and that of the children of the families concerned.’