In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) introduced the severest cuts in the availability of legal aid for family cases since the inception of the legal aid scheme. Many professionals involved in the family justice system predicted this would have a severe impact on resolving family problems and lead to difficulties within the courts caused by an increase in parties having to represent themselves (litigants-in-person).
Twelve months on the Ministry of Justice, responsible for the administration of the courts and the legal aid scheme, insist that the efficiency of the courts has not been adversely effected. However that is not a view that is being shared by many of the senior judiciary.
A judge in the Court of Appeal has commented on the increasing number of people representing themselves in court and the additional difficulties this presents to the court.
Speaking after an appeal hearing regarding a care placement order in which the mother was unrepresented, Lady Justice Black said that the presence of a litigant in person forced the court to ‘take on burdens that they would not normally have to bear’.
She said more and more litigants are representing themselves and mentioned that when this happened it usually fell to the court to explain which grounds for appeal could be advanced and to assemble the proper documents. Lady Justice Black warned that in future, local authorities may have to step in to help ensure all involved are adequately represented and that it should be their responsibility to assist people in such matters.
She emphasised the fact that everyone involved in public and private law children cases is trying to achieve the best result for the children’s welfare, but without legal representatives for all parties ‘that task is infinitely more difficult’.
In addition, the Judicial Executive Board has published a response to the first year of changes under LASPO. The view expressed by this report on behalf of the judiciary in general is that the cuts in legal aid have led to unmeritorious cases being brought and other cases that might otherwise have settled having to be dealt with on a fully contested basis because of the lack of legal advice.
These remarks demonstrate the extent to which legal aid cuts are in reality affecting cases day to day and the implications of this on the family courts. There are fears matters may only get worse and that the savings achieved by the legal aid cuts represent a false economy.