So, we have a shiny new family court, along with lots of new laws, rules procedures and forms that will make the future for the family justice system so much better than it was in the past. The future is looking brighter than ever.
Except that it isn’t.
The reality of the future of the family justice system became a little clearer with two pieces of news that appeared on Tuesday, to coincide with the great reforms.
The first piece of news should come as no surprise. Data released by the Ministry of Justice shows that more than half of all parties in private law child-related court cases are now unrepresented.
The number of unrepresented parties, either parents or grandparents, in child-related proceedings has increased year-on-year by a third, from 25,656 between April and December 2012, to 34,249 between April and December 2013. In the most recent two months for which data is available (last November and December), over half of all parties (52%) attending child-related proceedings were unrepresented.
I suspect that things are similar for non-children cases, in particular financial remedy claims following divorce.
This situation is, of course, the result of the Government’s abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters last April. The Government’s great answer to the problem was mediation, but clearly that has not worked – the number of people going to court has actually increased, probably because they don’t have lawyers to encourage them to settle their disputes and warn them of the possible consequences of going to court.
What does this mean in reality?
Well, first of all parties are obviously at the disadvantage of not having proper legal advice. Secondly, I can easily imagine that going to court without legal representation must be extremely stressful for many. And where the other party can afford to be represented, the unrepresented party will clearly be at a severe disadvantage. It really is one system for the rich and another for the poor (a point I will return to in a moment).
And if you think that it’s not a problem if both parties are unrepresented, then consider the extra time that the cases take in court, with the judges having to explain everything to the parties and ensure that they both comply with court rules, etc. That extra time of course costs money, which rather defeats the object of the legal aid cuts.
So what is the answer?
Well, apart from mediation and untrained and uninsured McKenzie friends (who recently got the nod of approval from the Legal Services Consumer Panel), the Government’s next great idea came to light in the other piece of news that appeared on Tuesday.
It has been reported that Government ministers have launched plans for a network of centres that will be manned by students and trainee lawyers who can guide divorcing couples before they appear in court. The trainee lawyers will apparently be there to ‘hold the hands’ of divorcing couples, and to ‘reduce confrontations across the floor of the court’.
As a lawyer on Twitter said, when I read this news I had to check that it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. No disrespect whatsoever to students or trainees, but they very obviously do not have the level of knowledge and experience of qualified lawyers. This really will be a second-class service for second-class (i.e. less well off) citizens.
So that is the reality of the future of the family justice system: parties having to struggle with representing themselves or risk uninsured representatives, courts clogged with litigants in person, people being directed to mediation whether or not it is appropriate for them and others having to make do with second-class advice.
Welcome to the future.
Photo by whatleydude via Flickr