John Bolch says: welcome to the future

Family Law|April 24th 2014

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 

Author: John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

Comments(9)

  1. JamesB says:

    It is a situation that has been caused by lawyers bringing more and more cases to court over the last few decades, asking the tax-payer to fund warring parents as you do is pushing it. Lawyers should lobby for pre-nups or scrapping of unreasonable behaviour as a ground for divorce. Asking for money to promote fatherless children as they do is not good and perhaps politicians (I like to think positively) have realized that doing what lawyers say (examples include Iraq and divorce and children law Bloody Sunday enquiry, Hillsborough enquiry etc.) isn’t winning them votes; they are rightly looking for better solutions then stitching people up – as per those examples and millions more – as every time you stitch someone up they (politicians) lose a vote. So, it is time for less lawyers stitching people up.

  2. JamesB says:

    It is not lawyers per se that are the problem, its government forgetting who they represent (the people rather than lawyers) that has been the problem.

    So, perhaps lawyers should try representing people rather than themselves, then they would have more support on this issue. Laywers don’t seem to have the public behind them on this, for this reason.

  3. JamesB says:

    To sum up the comments I posted, I support the changes and future changes being made by the Government in this area of legal aid and private law and not you or your ideas for how to give lawyers more money,on this subject.

    I don’t think we should have too many lawyers, as a society we should be able to sort things out between ourselves, with lawyers less. In America they have more lawyers per head and here we have more accountants per head, I prefer to keep it that way. I trust an accountant over a lawyer. I do think lawyers are useful but think the problem was caused by them having too much influence in government and not enough people (the public) having influence in government.

    Like all that public money spent on the extraditions of the alleged terrorists and people slagging the country off (alleged activities in London over last 20 years). Don’t think that helped you sell your line of argument about being badly treated also. Lawyers should not be so expensive.

  4. JamesB says:

    It is better for both sides to be unrepresented rather than only one side unrepresented which has often been the case to date, where, usually the father goes into count unrepresented and loses, as I did. At least if both are unrepresented you don’t lose on a technicality as much. Like as I have seen you argue John with lawyers defeating nrp fathers and then you insulting the losing nrp fathers for trying. Perhaps if both sides are unrepresented more it levels and evens the paying field more.

    The one thing I sadly agree with you on this article with is that the more you spend the better the outcome for you and that is strange as law should be fair, not based on money, so probably best avoided as the government rightly are saying and you don’t like. If lawyers change and are less venial, for e.g. with reasonably priced pre-nups and really helping children rather than themselves, more, then there is a place for them. Thing is they are not and haven’t been like that often in this country, with notable exceptions, whom I regard Marilyn as one.

  5. JamesB says:

    If lawyers were more like Marilyn, i.e. more trustworthy, then they wouldn’t be in this problem.

    Seeing them argue child abuse for me drinking vitamin c around the children and similar has made me question their integrity, they need to re-acquire that with the public and government.

  6. JamesB says:

    They have been naughty, denying decent fathers decent contact and decent lives for example. That matters, expecting to be paid for doing so has wound me up and is why I have written all this here.

  7. JamesB says:

    Lawyers need to admit that they are at fault also and then perhaps they can rebuild trust. I haven’t seen much (with one exception) contrition by lawyers at all really. The exception being some chap (Andrew I think) taking an early guilty plea on another thread. More of that type of approach and less of this type of entitlement approach please.

  8. JamesB says:

    You don’t really like nrps, like most lawyers, and that is bad and wrong. As I said today on another thread to exclude half of society (the nrps) as too difficult to handle is not dealing with the matter and to expect to be paid for doing so is wrong. All my other posts above add up to this one which is, as Forrest would say, what I have to say about that.

  9. caz says:

    The Law Gazette ‘Civil Justice Council explores online dispute resolution’ ?
    Yet another idea of payment for silence? just will add insult to injury, these courts have administered for years, abuse of justice, now payment for silence

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