The Magistrates Association has been surveyed anonymously by online media firm BuzzFeed, illustrating a damning assessment on the decline in the number of parents legally represented at court in family law cases and the adverse impact this falling representation has on the prospects of success for those parents and the continued drain on the court’s finite resources.
Magistrates in the family court hear a range of cases, many of which impact seriously on children’s lives. These include parental disputes over the contact and residence of their children, local authority interventions to protect children, financial support for children after a breakup, and protecting victims of domestic violence.
The survey of 370 magistrates found that in their most recent family court hearing, 68% of parents represented themselves, a figure up from 41% in 2014, the year after the drastic cuts to legal aid were introduced through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), affecting many parents’ ability to source legal representation. In many eyes, this situation is leading to injustices and long, confrontational court hearings where children ultimately are the the innocent victims being adversely affected.
The chair of the Magistrates Association, John Bache, said he was worried the increase in people representing themselves is resulting in unfair hearings.“The problem is that if one side is represented by a professional lawyer and the other isn’t represented, that must be intrinsically unfair. In family [law cases], the magistrates will do their best to ensure a fair hearing for both sides, but as in criminal hearings, you can’t put questions in their mouth.”
Bache said the imbalance of having one side represented ultimately, ended up harming children. “The impact on children will stem from that because if there hasn’t been proper representation, the children won’t be achieving necessarily the best outcome in terms of relationship with their parents. You’re deciding about access and how it should be divided between two parents. To make the best possible decision you need as much information as possible.”
The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, stated “We can not talk of delivering access to justice when so many people are now forced to represent themselves in courts. How is a person who has never been in court before supposed to take on a legal expert?”
The government has announced a review of the impact of its cuts to legal aid which will report back next year. One of the government’s stated aims in no longer funding lawyers for low-income couples arguing over divorce or child arrangements was that it would encourage them to seek mediation instead. But, as the government has accepted, the opposite happened. With no lawyers referring clients to mediation, the numbers seeking an non-adversarial solution plummeted and instead there has been a rise in people attempting to navigate the family courts without legal representation.
If you would like to discuss issues relating to your children following the breakdown of your relationship, contact one of our expert solicitors today on 01234 88977 or 0207 177 9777 for a free consultation. Serving Bedford and London, our lawyers can help you with your family law matters.