From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 22/01/2013.
A rising trend in the appearance of litigants in person signals a need for legal resources to be more widely available to the general public. But the government are failing to provide it, Marilyn Stowe argues
Earlier this month, my latest family law book hit the online shelves. It is my first book in nearly ten years, but why now? Let’s put it this way: there is a reason why the book includes worksheets and checklists. And there is a reason why it is available on e-readers for less than £1 (with all royalties going to the Children’s Society), so that as many people as possible can access its contents. That reason? People are now more desperate than ever for family law information, guidance and support.
In all the time that I have been practicing family law, I have never known a time like this. When I started 30 years ago, all my clients had access to a lawyer. The poorest paid nothing, because legal aid was free. ‘Mid-range’ clients were still able to secure legal aid, but made contributions. Everybody had access to a lawyer and therefore everybody had access to family law, which was designed to be administered by lawyers and adjudicated by judges.
Legal aid demolished
Even the doom-mongers among us could not have predicted that in just a couple of years, the government would all but demolish family law legal aid, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without access to a lawyer. Instead, they must try and access justice on their own. Family law legal aid has been destroyed and many lawyers, myself included, fear the situation will only get worse. Already our courts are clogging up with people who have chosen, rightly or wrongly, to go without professional legal advice. Legal advice centres are already struggling with the soaring demand for help, and are having to turn people away. They are providing people with ‘DIY legal support packs’ instead. My blog readership has ballooned over the past year, which I suspect is due in no small part to a sudden and pressing need by individuals who aren’t trained lawyers to understand family law and divorce. Many of them are litigants in person, either because they do not qualify for legal aid or because they believe they cannot afford professional legal advice.
The government has created a gaping wound – and is attempting to cover it up with a couple of sticking plasters. To date we have plenty of talk, but little action. Right now there are proposals for a multi-million pound phone app, and a concerted effort to push mediation as a one-size solution when, as those of us who work with clients on a day-to-day basis know, it is anything but. It may be a cheap stopgap, but mediation is not and cannot be a complete solution to the courts’ current overcrowding issues. The courts offer certainty; mediation does not.
Meanwhile, legal aid family lawyers are fielding client enquiries but find themselves in a difficult situation. When their contracts come to an end on 31 March, they face an uncertain future. Renewed contracts will only be available to help clients in extremely limited circumstances, most notably where there has been evidence of domestic violence or there are public family law issues regarding protection of children. Too many high street solicitors, who have years of specialist training will have to turn would-be clients away.
We aren’t done yet: Mr Justice Ryder’s revamp of the family courts is imminent and it is likely that, in the future, more cases will be heard by the magistrates’ court. This is a good idea in theory – magistrates do a good job, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t become involved in the more straightforward family law matters. But faced with a surge of bewildered litigants in person, the magistrates cannot clear the courts’ bottlenecks. Mr Justice Ryder has my sympathy, because he is trying to do the best possible job in the worst possible circumstances.
The proof of the pudding? At the time of writing, less than two weeks after publication, more than 500 copies of my book have already been downloaded. The book aims to assist people to get to grips with family law. But in the current climate, that aim is taking on an ever increasing urgency.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal, and is reproduced by kind permission