Legal aid changes lead to an increase in legal battles between divorcing parents

According to recent figures, changes in the legal aid system have led to a surge in the numbers of children caught up in legal battles between their parents, whilst mediation services are experiencing a drop in demand.

Cafcass, the agency which looks after the interests of children in the family courts, has reported receiving 5,061 new cases involving family breakdowns in England in May, with figures running at almost twice the level seen two years ago.

Changes to the legal aid system which came into effect on 1 April, mean that around 200,000 people per year who would have been able to receive legal aid in divorce and child custody cases, will now no longer qualify for legal aid. The months leading up to the changes in legal aid saw a marked in increase in the number of cases, however the increase has continued to rise even further since the cuts came into effect.

Conversely family mediation services are experiencing a drop in demand, possibly because less people have been to see solicitors who would have referred them for mediation. The Government has been keen to promote family mediation as a way to prevent lengthy and expensive domestic battles being dragged out through the courts and this is something we’ve reported on in recent news posts. The Ministry of Justice announced recently that under new laws currently going through Parliament, separating couples will be legally required to find out how they can settle their disputes outside court.

Vicki McLynn who is a partner in family law with Pannone, warned that the increase could lead to an increase in acrimonious child contact cases:

“Previously, individuals with legal representation might have attempted to negotiate a resolution to their particular difficulties without going to court,” she explained.

“However, the withdrawal of public funding for most types of cases has meant court potentially now being the first and only option considered by those now having to represent themselves, despite Government’s efforts to increase the number of couples taking part in mediation.

Given the considerable workload already being handled by Cafcass, the fear is that this fresh influx of work may cause delays in cases while their reports are prepared.

That, in turn, only risks increasing frustration for parents who have limited or no contact with their children as well as distress for the children concerned.”

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