I have been making a small study of the latest family court statistics, to see the effect, if any, of the legal aid cuts upon the number of people using the courts. The results weren’t quite what I had expected.
First a little background. On the first of April 2013 the government abolished legal aid for most private law family matters. Thus, legal aid was no longer available in particular for divorce, private law children cases and financial remedy cases following divorce. Essentially, the only type of private law family matter still covered by legal aid is domestic violence, although even that was made a little harder to obtain.
One would expect that the number of family law matters going before the courts would have reduced significantly since the first of April 2013, with many people unwilling to take proceedings without legal advice or representation. Indeed, statistics from Cafcass for new private law children cases received by them did indicate first a sharp rise in the number of cases issued before the deadline for the abolition of legal aid, followed by a significant decline. However, the numbers have recently been increasing again, and appear to be heading back towards the pre-abolition of legal aid levels.
The figures from Cafcass are borne out by the court statistics. They show that the number of private law children applications peaked at 15,640 in the second quarter of 2013, then dipped down to just 9,303 in the second quarter of 2014, only to increase again to over 10,000 in the third and fourth quarters of 2014, not that far below the pre-abolition of legal aid levels, which ranged between about eleven and thirteen thousand.
What of divorce, for which legal help (in other words, the solicitor advising and doing the paperwork) was previously available? The court statistics (which include nullity and judicial separation cases) do indicate a drop in the number of petitions issued since legal aid was abolished, with the figure reducing from 125,000 in 2012 to 118,000 in 2013 and just 113,000 in 2014. However, this is really just the continuation of a downward trend that has been going on for many years (the figure was 148,000 in 2006).
Moving on to financial remedy applications, the figures didn’t really change much around the time of the abolition of legal aid, although they did reduce in 2014, when they went down to 37,000, from 42,000 in each of the previous two years. That may be to do with the abolition of legal aid, although if fewer divorces are being issued then obviously there will be fewer financial remedy applications. Looking a little deeper, I wondered whether the lack of legal aid might have led to more financial remedy cases being settled by agreement, rather than going to a contested hearing. However, the figures do not bear this out, with the proportion of contested cases actually increasing after the abolition of legal aid, which I suppose makes sense, with people not being able to settle their cases without legal assistance.
The figures for domestic violence are interesting. This is the only category of private law family work where the number of applications has increased since legal aid for other matters was abolished, going up from 17,000 in 2012 to 20,000 in 2014. That is, of course, no surprise, with people ‘using’ domestic violence as a gateway to getting legal aid.
In short, whilst the abolition of legal aid has clearly had an effect upon the number of family law matters going before the courts, there are also other factors at play, and any effect may turn out to be short-term only. It seems that, in the long term, the number of people using our family courts is likely to be similar to what it would have been had legal aid not been abolished. If that is so, then the government’s flagship strategy of directing people towards mediation rather than the courts will have clearly failed.
Of course, the real effect of the legal aid cuts has been to force people to go to court without the benefit of legal representation, putting them at a disadvantage and an enormous burden upon the courts. If my analysis of the figures is correct, any hope that those problems would at least be alleviated somewhat by a reduction in the number of people using the courts appears to have been misplaced.
The latest family court statistics can be found here.
Photo by Alan Alfaro via Flickr