A recent report highlights the fact that fewer and fewer parents are being represented in cases concerning their children. But what is the true impact of this change.
The report stated that from April - June 2014 60% of parents in dispute over their children attended Family Courts without legal representation. It’s believed that this dramatic increase in Litigants in Person is a result of the withdrawal of Legal Aid for almost all family cases.
So, what is the impact of this change on the courts, family lawyers and more importantly separating families?
Whilst the Government will have saved money in one department, there are strong arguments to suggest they are now losing considerably more in other departments as a result of the delays that are being caused at court.
When a person arrives at court without legal representation, far more time is spent by the represented party’s lawyer trying to discuss and reduce the issues before going into court. When the parties eventually reach court the Judge is spending far more time talking to Litigants in Person and making sure they understand what is happening.
The represented party may pay more
It is common that the applicant in a case prepares the trial bundles, which can be a lengthy and costly process. It is now too easy for Judges to simply direct that the represented party prepares the court bundles and bears the cost of doing so.
It is often the case that Litigants in Person will communicate with the represented party’s lawyer on a more frequent basis than they would if represented themselves. Again this has the impact of increasing the represented party’s costs.
Whilst the courts do their best to provide information to help people representing themselves, this will not have a significant impact upon the current problems being faced by the court and in cases where only one party is represented.
Fewer chances for negotiation and reaching agreement
At the beginning of each case and at regular intervals throughout, lawyers consider whether any issues can be resolved through alternative methods such as mediation, family counselling or round-table meetings, as opposed to formal court proceedings. This significant increase in parties attending the family court without representation emphasises the need for alternatives. Mediation can be an extremely effective way of the parties exploring options and trying to achieve an agreement without going to court.
Fortunately Legal Aid is still available for mediation. If an agreement can be reached this is a less stressful and cheaper option than court proceedings. Regrettably there are cases however when mediation is not an option particularly, where there has been domestic violence or one of the parents feels they are in a much weaker negotiating position.
It’s the children who suffer
Sadly as a result of the Legal Aid cuts and the increase in parents representing themselves, it is more often than not the children who are losing out. It cannot be in the best interests of the children for a case to go to court, a process which can take months and in some instances years. In many cases children become aware that their parents are going to court, particularly if one or both parents are stressed and this cannot be in their best interests.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson has indicated that Legal Aid for mediation will remain available and funding for free mediation sessions was announced recently. This is to be welcomed of course but it won’t solve the problem overnight and in the meantime there are some parents who will be denied contact with their children whilst they wait for their case to be settled.
My advice to separated parents? Do try and put the children at the forefront of any decisions you make, whilst protecting the as much as possible from the difficult emotional and practical issues you are facing.
Woolley & Co Family Law Solicitors