A LEADING family charity based in Devon says comments by the Lord Chief Justice highlight how the Government has ‘shot itself in the foot’ with mismanaged and expensive changes to legal aid.
Addressing MPs on the Commons Justice Committee, Sir John Thomas said cuts in Legal Aid eligibility, implemented a year ago, have ‘undoubtedly’ caused a significant increase in the number people representing themselves in court cases, leading to much more pressure on the court system.
The increase in ‘litigants in person’ is particularly acute in family cases, he said. Full comments are shown below.
Jane Robey, Chief Executive of National Family Mediation (NFM), criticised the ‘mismanagement’ of the legal aid changes: “Tens of thousands of divorcing and separating people have been exposed by the cuts to high cost legal fees which they cannot afford, and so naturally these people are going straight to court, representing themselves,” she said.
“Whilst the Government says the legal aid cuts have saved the taxpayer money, they will have spent much, much more than this saving in keeping the over-loaded courts going as the buckle under pressure.”
She outlined the particular impact on family mediation, of which NFM is the largest provider in England and Wales: “The government failed to sufficiently publicise the options that remained to divorcing and separating couples when the legal aid cuts were implemented. Too many people remain in the dark.
“They’ve been unaware that legal aid is still available for mediation – a cheaper and quicker way of resolving family issues than heading straight off to the courtroom.
“And solicitors stopped referring overnight to mediation providers because they no longer had to.
“The impact on the court system, as observed by the Lord Chief Justice, come as no surprise to us. The Government has really shot itself in the foot with its management of the changes.”
In evidence to the Commons Justice Committee on 2 April, Lord Chief Justice Sir John Thomas told MPs: “There has undoubtedly been a significant increase in litigants in person. I don’t think we have proper figures yet. But undoubtedly in family and small claims work there has been a significant increase.
"I find that out when I go to talk to district judges. And it is having an effect; there is no doubt about that on what I call the bottom rung of the civil work.
"It’s particularly acute in family cases because if two people who have had a breakdown in their relationship are required to be adversarial parties, our system doesn’t work very well and so most district judges now are moving to swearing the parties in and conducting it in a more inquisitorial manner where there is a dispute over say children, or custody or maybe financial matters.”