To have and have not in the family justice system

Family Law|September 2nd 2015

In my recent posts here I have spoken quite a lot about the plight of the litigant in person in the family justice system. Denied legal aid and unable to afford a lawyer, they are left to navigate the system with little or no legal assistance. Thus, for example, I wrote about the traps that they can fall into without the help of good legal advice, and about the problems that they can encounter when seeking the assistance of a McKenzie friend.

After considering such matters it comes as something of a culture shock to be presented with a case such as Joy v Joy-Morancho and Others, which was published at the end of last week. Talk about from the famine to the feast. Ms Joy and Mr Joy-Morancho have enjoyed the benefit of top lawyers whilst they have embarked upon a seemingly never ending voyage of bitterly-fought proceedings to resolve financial arrangements following the breakdown of their marriage.

Let us look at some of the figures thrown up by the case. Thus far it has resulted in three published judgments. These have been in the usual thorough, meticulous style of Sir Peter Singer, running to 48, 69 and an eye-watering 245 paragraphs respectively. The three hearings leading to those judgments have occupied a total of twenty-two days of court time. OK, a couple of those may be part-days, but how much more court time have this couple taken up that hasn’t been reported?

And how much has all of this cost? Well, it seems that there are no definitive figures as yet, but Ms Joy’s costs are estimated at £588,500 and Mr Joy-Morancho’s at a staggering £870,000. That’s getting on for a total of one and a half million pounds. That’s considerably more than most people earn in an entire lifetime.

Now, I’m not saying for one moment that Ms Joy and Mr Joy-Morancho have done anything wrong. They were perfectly entitled to expend their resources in the way that they did. However, I wonder what the average litigant in person may think of such profligacy, as they struggle to put together enough money to buy some basic legal advice.

I know that this is all just a factor of our unequal society, which unfortunately seems to be becoming more unequal all the time. A society in which the rich live in their gated communities shut away from the rest and the poor rely on the largesse of the food bank is always going to throw up such inequalities.

But somehow I still have this idealistic notion that access to the law should be different. It should truly be the same for all members of society. The outcome of any legal process should depend upon the merits of your case, not upon the size of your wallet. The introduction of legal aid sixty-five-odd years ago was intended to create this ideal, wiping away the iniquities of a system that favoured the rich.

Now we have that system again. Perhaps, like those pioneers who conceived and put together the legal aid system in the brave new world after the war, we should ask ourselves once more what kind of society it is that acquiesces in the unfairness of a legal system that can appear more like a plaything for the wealthy, rather than something intended for the use of everyone with a dispute to resolve.

The full judgment in as Joy v Joy-Morancho and Others is here – just make sure you set aside plenty of time to read it!

Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

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