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Families take to representing themselves in child-related cases

New statistics suggest that more than 50% of cases brought before family courts involve parties with no formal legal representation, reports the Law Society Gazette.

The news comes one year after the Coalition Government implemented sweeping cuts to legal aid, which included axing legal support in the vast majority of family law cases, save those involving domestic violence.

The cuts were the first tranche of austerity measures to hit the legal aid budget, and were designed to trim £350m from the then £2bn+ legal aid budget described by the Government as 'the most generous in the world'.

However, the effects of those cuts are only now being recognised in statistics, which show that the number of parties going to court without a lawyer has increased by a third.

Between April and December 2012, prior to the implementation of the legal aid cuts last April, 25,656 parties went to family law courts without legal representation. However, in the same period in 2013 after the cuts were implemented, that number had risen to 35,249.

The data also shows that the numbers are rising further still, with the figures for the last two months of 2013 showing that the number had risen to over 50% for the first time.

Freedom of Information

The data was made available to Marc Lopatin, the founder of Lawyer Supported Mediation, a service operating in London offering family mediation for a contested divorce with fees as low as £1,000.

Mr Lopatin's service is different from standard mediation because parties are invited with advice from a senior family lawyer offering support for a fixed fee.

His Freedom of Information Act request showed that of the 8,115 cases involving children brought in November 2013, 4,174 were unrepresented (51%).

The data also shows that the number of parties taking contested divorce cases to court continues to rise, with a year-on-year increase of around 5%. The Government's strategy for family law was to encourage parties to try alternative methods to resolving family law disputes, alleviating the pressure on the court system. However, these figures seem to suggest that this approach is failing.

One area in which the Government hoped the additional capacity would be targeted towards is mediation; however, take up of legal aid funded mediation has fallen by 40%.

False allegations

Richard Miller, the head of legal aid policy at the Law Society, said the figures released to Mr Lopatin prove that the Government's reasoning behind legal aid cuts was flawed.

He believes the data shows that family lawyers were not 'stirring up' unnecessary litigation, which was the main basis for the legal aid cuts, and commented that in fact lawyers often steer parties away from court.

"The truth is emerging: far from stirring up unnecessary litigation between the parties, as was frequently falsely alleged as a justification for legal aid cuts, lawyers are very effective at steering separating couples away from the courts," he said.

"Without lawyers to resolve disputes less contentiously, more couples end up fighting in court, to their own detriment and that of the children of the families concerned," Mr Miller added.

Commentators believe the increasing number of cases being brought to family law courts, and the growing number of people attending court unrepresented, will lead to a slowdown in court throughput and will eventually place the family law courts in crisis.