Nearly three-quarters of private family cases involve one or both parties without legal representation, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England reports today.
A study, which the office says is the first ‘in-depth rights-based examination’ of the impact of the withdrawal of legal aid from most family cases in April 2013, also shows that a scheme supposed to plug the gap in serious cases has fallen far short of its intended reach.
Only 57 ‘exceptional funding’ grants were provided in the year since the cuts came in to force, rather than the 3,700 the Ministry of Justice had predicted.
Maggie Atkinson (pictured), children’s commissioner for England, said the research shows that the legal aid reforms ‘do not make sense’.
She said: ‘The system is so difficult to navigate that it leads to people having no legal representation. That in turn can prevent decision-makers making decisions properly, as well as stopping individuals obtaining the justice they need.’
Short-term savings in legal aid are ‘simply shifting costs to another part of the system’, she said, ‘because judges direct that representation has to be funded, and this does not strike me as being a saving’.
The findings are published today by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in a Child Rights Impact Assessment of changes to civil and prison law legal aid since April 2013.
Family lawyers' group Resolution welcomed the impact assessment's publication, saying it validating its concerns about the reforms.
'The statistics from the commissioner’s impact assessment show that the number of unrepresented parties in private family law cases has increased dramatically since the legal aid cuts,' said Jo Edwards, chair.
'Resolution members have seen first-hand the damage this is doing to all parties involved in the family court process – delays, an escalation in conflict during cases and, in the worst cases, miscarriages of justice as people attempt to navigate a complex legal system on their own.'