Hard-up couples choosing to represent themselves are causing chaos in the divorce courts, it has emerged. The recession and upcoming cuts to legal aid are putting immense pressure on family courts as litigants shun solicitors to go it alone, The Law Society Gazette reported. Meanwhile wealthier divorcing couples are benefiting from a new arbitration scheme enabling them to settle out of court by employing expensive specially trained lawyers.
The process is legally binding but allows couples a more informal legal setting. It is feared the new rules will create a two-tier legal system that will favour the wealthy. Since last April divorcing couples have been required to attend a ‘mediation information and assessment meeting’ before they could apply to the family courts. The rules were supposed to encourage people to resolve their issues, easing pressure on courtrooms.
But a survey by family law group Resolution found that only a third of its members had advised their clients about the meeting. Meanwhile, 78 per cent revealed the courts did not check whether couples had looked into mediation before filing for divorce. Divorce rates rose 4.9 per cent from 2009 to 2010, but the courts are also dealing with cohabiting couples seeking legal help in separating.
Several judges told The Law Society Gazette that cases where litigants represented themselves took twice as long because they often needed help navigating the legal process. One said: ‘We are getting more and more people coming to court in private law cases without the benefit of sensible, structured legal advice, wanting to spill blood on the court carpet. ‘The government wants people to stay out of court, but it is very difficult to get people to mediate when they are still very angry and haven’t had the benefit of decent legal advice. These cases take an inordinate amount of time, which is having a knock-on effect.’
Joanne Edwards of Resolution, told The Observer: ‘The potential for a two-tier justice system here with arbitration for the wealthiest and an over-jammed court system for everyone else is a concern. She added: ‘We would also really like to push for a no-fault divorce because, while we have a fault-based divorce system and blame is apportioned, you have a confrontational process which benefits no one.’
Earlier this month Sir Nicholas Wall, the most senior family judge in England and Wales, warned of ‘a substantial increase’ in the number of people who will be forced to represent themselves in court due to cuts in legal aid. The legislation, due to come into force in April next year, will cut £350m from the £2.2bn legal aid bill, axing areas of law including almost all family advice.