Following cuts to legal aid almost 20,000 more parents went to court without a lawyer in 2013/14, according to unpublished Government figures.
The surge in unrepresented parents contesting child contact and residence cases follows the withdrawal of legal aid from family lawyers in April 2013 for most private family law matters.
Far from reducing the number of warring parents heading to court, cuts to legal aid resulted in an annual increase. But it is the surge in the number of unrepresented parents that will be a cause for concern among parenting and child welfare organisations.
For the first time ever, over half (58%) of all parents who attended court in 2013/14 did so without a lawyer to represent them. In total, UK family courts dealt with 19,140 more unrepresented parents leading to an unprecedented warning from judges about courtroom delays and access to justice.
Jerry Karlin, Chair of shared parenting charity, Families Need Fathers said:
'It is staggering that so many parents are effectively being left to fend for themselves. We urgently need to develop affordable and compelling services that strive to keep parents from the courtroom. Children need their parents to communicate effectively with each other so that conflict can be addressed and ultimately resolved.'
Over half the rise in the number of unrepresented parties were women as low-income mums bore the brunt of the cuts to legal aid. Without access to legal aid for representation at court, the number of unrepresented mothers surged by 52% to almost 35,000. And for the first time, mothers made up more than half (53%) of all unrepresented parents attending court to contest child arrangements.
In fact, more mothers appeared at court in 2013/14 without a lawyer than with one. This is a total turnaround given over 60% of women at court were represented by lawyers in 2012/13 when legal was still available.
Part of the justification for removing legal aid from lawyers was that warring parents would attend publicly funded family mediation instead of going to court. The prediction proved disastrous with family mediation falling by almost 40% in 2013/14 as parents bypassed mediators for the judge.
The shocking revelations follow a Freedom of Information request by LawyerSupportedMediation.com
, a new UK-wide divorce and separation service being spearheaded by London law firm Ronald Fletcher Baker.
Rachel Duke, Head of Family at Ronald Fletcher Baker LLP, who helped develop Lawyer-Supported Mediation, said:
'For too many parents, going to court is seen as the only option instead of a last resort. This is because family law services are simply too expensive for most separating families.
We desperately need some innovation and alignment amongst lawyers and family mediators to develop services that meet the needs of parents in conflict. Lawyers and mediators working in tandem can build trust and get separating parents talking about the interests of their children. There’s not a lawyer in the land who can’t fix their fee to do this.'
Marc Lopatin, trained family mediator and founder of LawyerSupportedMediation.com said:
'Legal aid remains available for mediation and it’s extremely effective at helping parents reach agreement. The biggest challenge is getting more parents to explore it. This won’t happen unless the Ministry of Justice uses legal aid to bring lawyers and mediators together. At present, it’s driving them apart.'
In 2013/14, almost eight out of ten separating couples that began family mediation went on to reach agreement.* To encourage the take-up of family mediation, the government now insists the party taking legal action against their former partner first attend a mediation awareness meeting.
*Source Ministry of Justice:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/future-publication-legal-aid-statistics-2013-to-2014
For the latest facts about divorce, see Office of National Statistics Infographic:http://bit.ly/1n4UV4z