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Legal Aid cuts have left family courts ‘at breaking point’

Yesterday (Tuesday 29th July 2014) Guardian Legal Affairs Correspondent Owen Bowcott provided a clear insight into the state of family law in England & Wales, following the recent round of Legal Aid cuts. Reporting on discussions with Resolution, the body that represents lawyers and professionals in divorce hearings, the article provided valuable insight into the way separating couples are now faced with navigating their own way through relationship breakdown, often without professional support.

Jo Edwards, a solicitor and the newly appointed chair of Resolution stated, in the article: "a two-tier system of justice is emerging where private clients opt out of overcrowded, slow-moving public courts in favour of private arbitration hearings.

Cuts to legal aid have deprived separating couples of funding for representation and legal advice, leaving them to navigate their own way through the courts as they attempt to reach settlements on complex, emotional issues of child custody and division of family assets.

The result is that as many as two-thirds of cases working their way through the family courts now involve at least one side which has no lawyer to provide help. Such cases take more time because judges have to help litigants in person develop their claims".

She went on: "People are just giving up and not seeing their children because they don't know how to go about it," she said.

"We accept you can't go back to [funding family cases all the way through] but if you have a system at breaking point that will be more costly. The family courts system is very, very, very stretched. We recently met the Association of District Judges [who deal with family cases in county courts] and they were virtually holding their heads in their hands and saying it's very difficult.

People who represent themselves are not negotiating. They need a lot of time and help. The judges are having to draft orders which is normally done by the parties. I have heard of cases being listed eight months in advance."

Resolution is therefore championing the provision of legal aid for a single, initial meeting with a lawyer. The intention is that this meeting could provide separating couples with information about their legal options and encourage more people to use mediation as an alternative to courtroom confrontations. It has been noticed that the number of couples using mediation has plummeted, since the Legal Aid cuts.

Until a scheme such as this can be brought in, many law firms, like Wards Solicitors, are offering free initial meetings to all potential family clients in a bid to ensure that people have access to the correct advice, at the outset, irrespective of financial circumstances.

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