A couple of days ago the Law Society Gazette ran a story suggesting that separating couples are giving up on courts due to firm closures. The argument was that firm closures as a result of legal aid cuts are leaving separating parents without access to legal advice, with many giving up on settling disputes through the courts.
Unfortunately, the story did not give any figures as to how many law firms have closed as a result of the legal aid cuts two years ago. I haven’t seen any figures myself and am not aware of any having been published. I don’t doubt that there have been some closures (and mergers), but as to whether there have been so many as to leave separating parents with no access to legal advice at all within a reasonable distance of where they live, I’m not so sure.
Anyway, leaving that point aside, the argument in the story seems to rely heavily on the latest figures from Cafcass for private law demand, i.e. the number of private law children cases received by Cafcass. The figures are used as a barometer of how many parents are taking disputes over arrangements for their children to court, as in most of those cases the court will request that Cafcass investigate the case and provide a report for the court, usually with a recommendation as to what order or orders the court should make.
The latest figures from Cafcass, however, are somewhat ambiguous. It is true that the figures show that between April 2014 and March 2015 the number of new private law cases received by Cafcass was 27 per cent lower than the number received in the previous financial year. This figure is used by the story as evidence that without legal aid, or perhaps simply without access to legal advice, people are giving up on the courts and just “trying to muddle through”.
However, the latest figures from Cafcass also show something else. As the story does mention, they show that the number of cases received by Cafcass in June 2015 was actually 33 per cent higher than in June 2014. In fact the trend has generally been upwards since about May 2014, and the figures are now getting back to levels similar to those prior to the legal aid cuts.
Could it be that, contrary to accepted wisdom, parents are not staying away from court, but are actually now going to court in the same numbers they always did, albeit more commonly now without the benefit of a lawyer? It is true that there was a definite and substantial drop after the legal aid cuts took effect, but perhaps now the public are just getting used to the new legal landscape, where lawyers are only for the better off? Has there been an acceptance that having a lawyer is no longer the norm (and possibly that it is no longer a necessity)?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it does seem to me that it may be a misconception to think that separating parents are giving up on court. Perhaps they are just giving up on lawyers.