High Court judge Mr Justice Holman highlighted the effects of legal aid cuts on the court system in a recently published ruling on a contested divorce.
Delivering an ‘ex tempore’ judgement, the judge said:
“The circumstances in which I am considering this case could hardly be more unsatisfactory.”
In Tufail v Riaz, the wife had petitioned for divorce while the husband claimed a a valid divorce had already taken place in Pakistan. She was not present in court and not represented as she could no longer afford representation and was not eligible for legal aid. The husband was also unrepresented but appeared in court.
Mr Justice Holman said:
“In the present case, until recently, I would have expected to have had the assistance of experienced lawyers on each side and almost certainly expert evidence in relation to the proceedings in Pakistan which I will shortly describe. As it is, I have no legal representation and no expert evidence of any kind. I do not even have such basic materials as an orderly bundle of the relevant documents; a chronology; case summaries, and still less, any kind of skeleton argument. Instead, I have had to rummage through the admittedly slim court file, supplemented by various documents handed up to me by the respondent husband today and some material sent by the petitioner wife from Pakistan.”
The judge said the it seemed likely that the husband’s divorce certificate was valid. He explained:
“…on the basis of the material currently available to this court, including, in particular, that divorce certificate, I do currently consider that it appears, on the balance of probability only, that these parties have probably already been finally divorced in Pakistan. For that reason, it is clear to me that, at any rate for the time being, no further steps can be taken upon the wife’s petition for divorce here and it should be stayed.”
He went on to highlight the difficulties posed by the former couple’s lack of legal representation.
“I record that I began this case at 10.30 a.m. this morning and I am now concluding it around 3.30 p.m. It has, accordingly, effectively occupied the whole of the court day. By sheer good fortune, the other case which had been listed for hearing by me today was vacated [postponed] yesterday for reasons connected with its readiness. If that case had not been vacated, I, and the litigants in that case, would have been faced with very considerable difficulties and a severe shortage of court time, and probably also additional expenditure to the parties in that case who, as likely as not, would have to have returned on another day.”