Some parents are claiming that their children are being ‘damaged’ by cuts to legal aid.
Since the introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment for Offenders Act 2012 (known as LASPO) which brought about the limitation of legal aid in April 2013, there has been a rise in parents having to represent themselves in legal proceedings regarding their children.
Prior to the cuts 42% of parents were unrepresented in court proceedings, whilst the figure has now risen to 60% in 2014.
The aim of limiting the availability of legal aid was to discourage parents from relying on the court process for a solution and to encourage the resolution of any dispute between them. After all, court proceedings should be a last resort and parents reaching an agreement between them without litigation must be in the best interests of their children.
Sometimes court proceedings are necessary and cannot be avoided. Sometimes parents are simply unable to reach an agreement and they need the assistance of the court.
A mother, who asked not to be named, spoke with the BBC and in a recent article described having to represent herself at court as ‘intimidating’ and finding herself in ‘floods of tears’ and losing sleep, feeling depressed in the lead up to the court hearings. Her mood she believes will have impacted upon her children, who were very concerned for her.
With legal bills mounting to beyond £7,500, the mother in question felt she had no choice but to represent herself in the court room. For many people it is the case that they simply cannot afford the legal bills and continuing to pay for legal representation can mean the family generally going without.
A father named Brian, who asked for his surname not to be published, also spoke with the BBC and said that he felt to be at a disadvantage representing himself in legal proceedings. Again his bills were ‘adding up’ and said that as a litigant in person “you don’t know the law, the process and the language that’s used in court. You can find that you’ve been left behind and something’s been decided that you didn’t understand”.
Families appear to now be turning their back on the legal justice system altogether. There is reported to be a 40% drop in family related applications being made to the court between 2012 and 2014.
As an alternative to the court process parents are encouraged to use mediation. Mediation is where separated parents meet with an impartial person to reach an agreement. Legal aid is still available for mediation. Despite this the number of couples using mediation is down from 3,282 in March 2013 to 1,778 in June 2014.
Marc Lopatin, founder of Lawyer Supported Mediation, commented that “Family courts are rapidly becoming lawyer-free zones. This is having a devastating impact on low-income families as well as creating delays for all parents attending court. Ministers should admit they got it wrong. They need to stop seeing lawyers and mediators as an either or. Both professionals in tandem can keep families out of court and promote the best interests of the child”.
The government, through the introduction of the Children and Families Act 2014 in April of this year, promotes the concept of shared parenting. The Law Society has warned that the falling number of applications by parents to the court could mean children being denied access to a parent which seriously undermines that concept. It can also be emotionally damaging to children.
Whether you need representation in legal proceedings, advice and support as a litigant in person, to be referred to a trusted local mediator, or just general advice regarding a family related dispute, Farleys are on hand to help. Contact our family law team today on 0845 050 1958 or email us today.