The talented John Bolch requires little by way of introduction. Many of you already know him as the author of two useful family law web resources: the Family Lore blog and Family Lore Focus. Today I can announce that John Bolch will also be contributing to the Marilyn Stowe Family Law & Divorce Blog.
I am delighted to welcome John on board and, with the readers and commenters that we have here, I am confident that he will soon feel at home. John’s first post is about the fall in the numbers of couples attending mediation. After the legal aid cutbacks, who are the real “winners”? Are there any?
As regular readers of this blog know, the Government abolished legal aid for most family matters (save where a local authority is involved) on 1 April 2013. The Government’s ‘flagship’ solution to filling the gap that this left is mediation, which has been promoted by ministers at every opportunity over the last year or more.
Yesterday came the news that the number of couples attending out-of-court mediation to resolve family disputes since legal aid was cut have plummeted by 47 per cent. The primary reason for this is, quite simply, that people are no longer going to see solicitors because they cannot get legal aid, and so solicitors are no longer referring them to mediators. Instead, those people are going straight to court as ‘litigants in person’, without the help of legal advice or representation.
Clearly, mediation is not filling the gap left by the abolition of legal aid, even if it could ever be a substitute, which it could not. Mediation is not suitable for every case, and mediation does not, of course, always produce a result – i.e. an agreed settlement between the parties.
But lack of legal representation for litigants is not just an enormous disadvantage to them, it is also an enormous burden upon the court system, as has been highlighted by Mr Justice Holman in a recent case, already mentioned on this blog earlier today. In his judgment he referred to a lecture given by the President of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger in June. In that lecture Lord Neuberger pointed out ‘some of the considerable risks and consequences which may flow, and indeed are already flowing, from reductions in the availability of legal aid’. He said:
“…the money problems faced by legal aid are also faced by the courts system, and it is vital for the Ministry [of Justice] to appreciate that any changes which are made to reduce legal aid and cut the cost of litigation are likely to have a knock-on effect on the cost of the courts. Less legal aid means more unrepresented litigants and worse lawyers, which will lead to longer hearings and more judge-time.”
So, in return for a modest saving of £350 million (a drop in the ocean of government expenditure – the bank bailout was said to cost £850 billion), the abolition of legal aid has simultaneously denied proper access to justice for many, slowed the system of justice and added to its cost.