Briefing Note submitted on behalf of The Law Society by Catherine Reed.
The legal aid, punishment and sentencing of offenders bill will come into force this April. The legislation will cut £350m from the £2.2bn legal aid scheme by removing entire areas of law from public funding, including nearly all family advice.
In the past, where there has been a disparity in wealth between spouses involved in a divorce, state-funded legal advice (legal aid) has provided equality through access to a solicitor. But the legal aid bill will severely limit public funds for legal advice at the end of a relationship to only those cases which involve domestic abuse.
All couples in England and Wales whose marriages break up must now first consider mediation, before turning to the courts.
The Government decision's to invest in alternative dispute resolution and to encourage Parenting Agreements is welcomed, as these have an important role to play in helping parents collaborate for the sake of their children. However, the minority of cases which do go to court are often unsuitable for mediation or negotiation.
Cuts in legal aid will mean that more and more of the couples who do go to court will have to represent themselves, without any understanding of the process or with unrealistic expectations about the outcome, inevitably leading to further delay and frustration with the process.
The legal formality of getting a divorce is a relatively straightforward process. What is generally much more complex is sorting out the practical issues such as where each person will live, who gets what, and arrangements for any children. That is why it is advisable to consult a family law specialist solicitor before agreeing anything with your partner. A solicitor will advise about your rights and the options available. They will also explain some of the financial complexities and will help identify the issues that the court will consider, sort the wheat from the chaff, give tactical advice.
'DIY divorces' and the number of people representing themselves in court will surge as legal aid vanishes after April and more and more people will appear in front of a judge without legal representation due to cuts in public funding. The reality is that the absence of an experienced specialist family lawyer in a family case puts the client at a significant disadvantage and slows down the legal process.
The following material could be particularly helpful for Wikivorce members as it is directed towards Self-Represented Parties:
- Lucy Reed's 'Family Courts Without a Lawyer': http://www.nofamilylawyer.co.uk/
- Family Court Support - http://www.familycourtsupport.co.uk/litigation.htm
- Gingerbread - www.gingerbread.org.uk (Fact sheets available for separating parents and a community site and support)
- Citizens Advice Bureau - www.citizensadvice.org.uk (Some bureau's assist with completing forms by appointment)
- The Personal Support Unit - http://thepsu.org/ (Very useful website and walk-in clinic to help with process and procedure, rather than the legal aspect of it)
The Law Society don't formally endorse any of the sites that are listed.
The Law Society has produced material for solicitors facing 'litigants in person' (or self represented parties, as they are now called) in the form of a Practice Note: http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/advice/practice-notes/litigants-in-person/
For more information on The Law Society go to: http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/