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At the end of October the Government announced a new package of support developed with the “intention” of keeping family disputes out of court and providing support for parties whose disputes do go to court.
This “support package” is said to include:
However the plans have been widely criticised by family law specialists as an insufficient replacement for legal aid.
Resolution, (the national organisation of family lawyers committed to non-confrontational divorce, separation and other family problems) has described the government’s plans as “a sticking plaster for a family justice system left seriously wounded by cuts to legal aid”.
Following legal aid cuts there has been an increasing number of Litigants in Person (people representing themselves in court) which has led to significant delays in our courts. Here at Family Law Partners my colleagues and I have seen a large number of individuals attempting to present their own cases before a judge with little or no knowledge of the law.
For cases which do go to court, Justice Minister Simon Hughes said that “it is imperative that they have the right advice and information” and indicated that the new support “will make sure that separating couples and parents are able to access the right advice, information and support at the right time.” His solution is a network of advice centres which will be staffed by student volunteers. Will such volunteers be equipped with the necessary skills and experience to advise people? I seriously doubt it.
Most people believe that their own divorce or separation is simple and that the process will be straightforward. They are unable to foresee the many common pitfalls and therefore it is imperative that people have access to expert legal advice as early as possible and throughout the process. Couples should be given choices and have the opportunity to discuss and consider all the options available to them in dealing with their particular situation and not just head for the local court at the first opportunity.
The proposals, on the face of it, appear to be designed to encourage people to see the court system as the first port of call. In our experience the majority of cases are in fact settled out of court. Gone are the days when lawyers encouraged couples to make court applications and run up huge fees. Instead most family lawyers are, thankfully, committed to helping people find solutions that work for them and their families.
We know that other forms of dispute resolution such as mediation, collaborative law and arbitration are very successful in helping couples resolve their problems with minimal conflict and therefore it is clear that the government would do better to focus on resources that highlight those options. Awareness of out of court dispute resolution options needs to be enhanced both for the general public and in terms of the information available to people at the point of divorce or separation to avoid inappropriate choices.