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Family courts facing blockages as legal aid cuts bite

Family courts in England and Wales are becoming overrun after the Government's changes to legal-aid funding for divorce cases begin to have their effect, reports The Independent.

Legal experts have warned that separating couples risk being 'cut adrift' by the Government's changes to legal aid that came into effect in April last year, which brought to an end legal-aid funding for almost all divorce cases.

The number of people accessing mediation services and family law solicitors has plummeted since last April, prompting experts to ponder whether separating couples are now being forced to take on the technical aspects of divorce on their own.

The Government suggested that after cutting legal aid from most family law cases, couples would be forced to engage mediation services in order to work out their issues.

However, Government figures suggest that the number of people engaging with official government mediation services actually fell by a third after the legal-aid cuts kicked in last April.

Experts claim that many couples are either struggling through the family law courts representing themselves, or have decided to attempt to resolve their problems outside of the court process altogether, a fact supported by a strong drop in the number of private law cases involving child custody and access.

The Independent cited the numbers from National Family Mediation, the largest family mediation provider in England and Wales, who saw their number drop 40% since April last year.

One organisation, LawyerSupportedMediation.com, told The Independent that mediation worked best when supported by legal advice from lawyers.

"The Government is trying to sever the link between mediators and lawyers which is worrying because clients need advice. That's how you reach efficient agreements at a price people can afford," the founder of LawyerSupportedMediation.com, Marc Lopatin, told The Independent.

The Government's response is that it remains committed to mediation, and it plans to change the law so that in future child or financial disputes relating to divorce must go through mediation service before they are allowed to go to court.