Thousands of cases without representation in UK Family Courts

Concerns have been raised after rising numbers of litigants in person (LiPs) combined with backlogs, delays and ‘chronic lack of investment’ is creating what the Law Society is calling a ‘perfect storm’ the the family justice system. 

New figures have shown that those who have been the worst affected by litigation issues in family law are based in Central London, where 2,691 cases are without legal representation.  Outside of the capital, Essex, Suffolk and Manchester are seeing issues with the family courts and a high number of unrepresented cases.

Since the government brought in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders in 2012, large areas of legal aid were slashed overnight. The Ministry of Justice has revealed data that shows more than 100,000 children were trapped in the backlogs last year. Studies have claimed that children who are involved in private law proceedings have a higher rate of mental health issues, with depression 60% higher than that of comparison groups.  The Law Society of England and Wales say that despite improvements to family justice, further action is needed to make the system ‘fit for purpose’. Others in the sector have expressed alarm at the potential impact on the demographic in most need of legal aid.

Law Society of England and Wales president Nick Emmerson said:

“Removing legal advice led to many more people going straight to court instead of seeking to resolve their cases through mediation.

“As the figures show, thousands of people are being forced to take on their case on their own, as they have no access to free legal advice. Means test eligibility has not been uprated for years, meaning people on lower incomes and sometimes those living in poverty, are unable to access justice.

“It is extremely concerning to see the rise in the number of people representing themselves in these kinds of cases.

“Family law cases are high stakes by their very nature. Cases deal with children being placed into care, domestic abuse victims or children finding out who they will live with as their parents’ divorce. Family solicitors are highly skilled and handle sensitive cases every day and can provide guidance and comfort to their clients.

“The rise in litigants in person is creating further pressure on a system already in crisis. Court desks – which are a key resource for face-to-face engagement, accessing information, engaging with relevant court staff and general support – are closing, removing essential visible access points for court users.

“The UK government has made some strides to improving the family justice system by choosing to invest in an early legal advice pilot and pledging to introduce a new online information and guidance tool to support earlier resolution of family disputes. However, further action is needed to make our family law justice system fit for purpose.”

The sentiments of the Law Society have been echoed by London solicitors Dawson Cornwell. They point out that issues with LiPs affect the ‘most vulnerable in society’, and have suggest an ‘uprate of the means test for legal aid’.

Forum Shah, partner at Dawson Cornwell, commented:

“I share the same concern raised by the Law Society today. Day in and day out we are encountering litigants in person in private family law cases.

“These are often cases with the most complex of issues, where there are multiple hearings and numerous deadlines, all of which litigants in person are expected to navigate alone.

“An uprate of the means test for legal aid would mean that these individuals could be legally represented which in turn would assist with ensuring that cases could be resolved quicker and hearings could be more effective. There has not been an increase in Civil Legal aid fees in 30 years and there have been cuts during this time.

“The cases that we deal with often involve those most vulnerable in society and legal aid providers need to ensure that they are adequately remunerated for the expert work that is undertaken; this issue is about access to justice and equality.”

The Law Society is calling on the government to – increase civil legal aid fees so that legal aid providers remain viable and people can access their right to legal advice and uprate civil legal aid means test eligibility so more people on lower incomes can access justice. They have also suggested an increase fees for the Qualified Legal Representative (QLR) scheme – which was brought in to safeguard victims from being cross-examined by their alleged perpetrator.

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