The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) was implemented in April 2013 with the objective of making justice affordable whilst not restricting access to it. But its effectiveness appears questionable given that as a result there has been a reduction in the legal aid available for civil and family law cases. Recent statistics released by the Ministry of Justice report that the time of the LASPO reforms coincides with a significant increase in the number and proportion of cases where neither party is represented [by a solicitor or barrister], alongside a drop in the proportion of those where both parties were represented. 9 out of 10 people find themselves needing to go to the family court without legal representation, and as well as potentially negatively impacting their case and the speed at which justice can be done, can also affect other aspects of their lives.
It is, unfortunately, the most vulnerable who are deprived of this access to justice. The most vulnerable in society and do not necessarily make the best self-representing litigants. These are struggling parents contesting child arrangements cases, and distressed ex-spouses attending hearings on financial matters concerned with divorce, all essentially compelled to be litigants in person solely through lack of funds. The trend was already clear just a year after the LASPO changes: “The numbers of publicly funded mediation cases have fallen by 40 percent despite the government promoting it as an alternative to court. The withdrawal of legal aid from most cases means many clients are not now seeking initial advice from a publicly funded solicitor who in the past may have steered them towards mediation.”
Aside from the obvious difficulties and added responsibilities that come with a lack of expert legal assistance, the Citizens Advice Bureau conducted a survey to highlight just how time-consuming and emotionally draining self-representation can get. Both the court process and the case outcome are jeopardised, ultimately undermining the parties’ mental and physical health, working lives, finances and relationships. On that note, this issue is much more than simple inefficiency and inadequacy in the current family justice system – it is an alarming problem destructive to the self and detrimental to a prosperous society.
The advantages of seeking a qualified lawyer equipped with an understanding of the law both in theory and in practice extend beyond highly reliable advice and highly credible decision-making. On the personal level a crucial benefit is that it seriously minimises the mentally, emotionally and even physically demanding nature of being involved in a family case hearing. When your life’s private state of affairs begins to feel suffocating, the last thing you need is more anxiety. You need that metaphorical oxygen mask – something to settle the situation down for you as you calm yourself to breathe, relax and find the clarity to properly navigate through the matter.