Last week we were all subjected to the usual quarterly avalanche of statistics from the Ministry of Justice on all things to do with our courts system. These included Family Court statistics for April to June this year and legal aid statistics for the same period. They cannot have made happy reading for members of HM Government, and their policy of removing legal aid from most private law family matters.
The statistics told us many things, but I’m going to concentrate here on just three.
Firstly, the most obvious result of abolishing legal aid was of course that the courts would be faced with having to deal with far more litigants in person. It is therefore no surprise that the latest statistics show that in 34 per cent of cases in the family court neither the applicant nor respondent were represented. This proportion is at its highest since legal aid was abolished in 2013, showing that the increase is still continuing (the figure was around 17 per cent prior to the abolition of legal aid). Cases where both parties are represented has fallen from around 40 per cent to around 27 per cent.
The effect of the increase in litigants in person upon the operation of the courts must be immense, with judges having to spend huge amounts of their time having to explain basic procedure to the parties (no disrespect intended to them). The other side of the coin is that many of those litigants will have their cases less well prepared, meaning that their chances of success are diminished.
And what is the government doing about this problem? Well, on Friday last week the Law Society Gazette told us, in a piece with the headline “MoJ ‘spending millions’ to cope with LiPs”. The derisive roars of “I told you so!” from five thousand family lawyers were deafening. Now, I know that the amount the government is spending is a fraction of what it saved on legal aid, but the irony is clear for all to see.
What else did the government do to help those who were no longer eligible for legal aid? Well, its flagship policy was to promote mediation as a means of resolving family disputes, thereby avoiding the need to go to court at all. So, how is this policy doing? The legal aid statistics tell us. They show that the number of mediation assessments in the quarter was 12 per cent down compared to the same period in 2015 (continuing the trend shown in the previous quarter), and currently stand at around half of the level prior to the abolition of legal aid. The number of mediation starts was down by 15 per cent over the same period. The policy of using mediation to ‘replace’ legal aid has been an utter failure.
But there is also another, perhaps less expected, effect of the legal aid cuts. The Family Court statistics also showed us that there was a ten per cent rise in the number of cases heard in the family courts during the quarter, compared to the same period last year. As Marilyn Stowe commented on Twitter, this is what happens when you remove legal aid. What the government failed to realise in its contempt for family lawyers is that they are actually very good at getting cases settled without going to court (I used to consider it my duty to my client to try to protect them from the stress and expense of contested court proceedings). Without lawyers fewer cases are settling, and more cases are going to court, putting yet more pressure on the system.
So there we are: more litigants in person, fewer mediations and more cases going to court. The chicken that is the government’s disastrous family justice policy is really coming home to roost.