Legal Aid cuts – the view from Magistrates
9 January 2018 by Ties Bouwmeester
Magistrates report that more than two thirds of the parties involved in family court cases are now unrepresented.
The exclusive survey of 370 magistrates for BuzzFeed News found that in their most recent family court hearings, 68% of people represented themselves, up from 41% in 2014. In anonymous testimony, magistrates said that the situation is leading to injustices and long, confrontational court hearings where children ultimately are the victims. Further, a decisive 95 per cent agreed with the suggestion that more litigants in person led to a less efficient court system. Drastic cuts to Legal Aid in 2012 through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) mean that it is much more difficult to obtain Legal Aid funding in family cases.
Magistrates in the family court hear a range of cases, many of which impact seriously on children’s lives. These include parental disputes where children live and who they spend time with, local authority interventions to protect children and protecting victims of domestic violence.
The chair of the Magistrates Association, John Bache, told BuzzFeed News he was worried that the increase in people representing themselves is resulting in unfair hearings: “The problem is that if one side is represented by a professional lawyer and the other isn’t represented, that must be intrinsically unfair. In family cases, the magistrates will do their best to ensure a fair hearing for both sides, but as in criminal hearings, you can’t put questions in their mouth.”
Mr Bache said the imbalance of having one side represented ultimately ended up harming children. “The impact on children will stem from that because if there hasn’t been proper representation, the children won’t be achieving necessarily the best outcome in terms of relationship with their parents.” He added: “You’re deciding about access and how it should be divided between two parents. To make the best possible decision you need as much information as possible.” Mr Bache said that court delays caused by explaining the law or waiting for documents from litigants in person could also end up harming children as they were left in limbo.
Several magistrates said the removal of legal aid had resulted in much more adversarial hearings as people fought very personal battles without a lawyer as a buffer. One said that as well as leading to cases where the side without a lawyer is “out-gunned by a partner with greater access to representation”, it has “led to more angry outbursts in court fuelled by frustration and stress”.
Jo Edwards, who leads on family law reform for Resolution and chaired the organisation when LASPO was implemented, said: “Sadly, the findings of this survey tally with the experience of our members across the country. The rise in litigants in person that has followed the cuts to legal aid has had a devastating impact on our family justice system, putting almost unmanageable pressures on our courts and, crucially, forcing countless vulnerable people to navigate an often intimidating process at one of the most emotionally traumatic periods of their lives. This is borne out from what magistrates are saying today, and one can only imagine what the long-term impact of this is on children of those navigating the system unaided.”
For advice on any aspect of family law, please contact the Family Team on [email protected].