Latest government figures highlighting the rising number of private law cases and litigants in person have prompted calls for the government to heed recent warnings about the family justice system.
Ministry of Justice figures show 13,029 new private law applications were made between April an June this year, a 3% increase on the same period last year. Neither the applicant nor respondent were represented in 36% of disposals, compared with 34% in the previous quarter.
Solicitor Jo Edwards, partner and head of family at London firm Forsters, said 'even a little' publicly funded advice at the outset could signpost parties towards mediation or be provided with information which would help them to settle their case. The former chair of family law body Resolution called for an 'urgent impact assessment' to see whether some limited funding for initial advice should be reintroduced.
The 13,029 new private law applications between April and June involved 28,278 children.
This month the lord chief justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, told the House of Commons justice committee that the rise in private law cases was 'deeply worrying'. Suggested solutions included reverting back to the old legal aid system or, as is done in California, provide a lawyer in court who can advise on an employed basis.
The Bach Commission on access to justice, chaired by Labour peer Lord Bach (Willy Bach), a former justice minister, recommended that the government bring legal aid back into scope for all matters concerning children. The government was also urged to widen the scope of legal aid for certain family cases with respect to court representation.
Edwards said: 'The reality is that absent wholesale change to the way in which the family justice system operates, this is not a crisis which is going to go away.'
Figures show 27,291 divorce petitions were made between April and June, down 10% on the same quarter last year. Resolution said the decline reflected the growing number of cohabiting couples, the fastest growing family type in the UK. 'Yet, bizarrely, there is still little or no legal protection for cohabitants should they separate. This needs to change,' Nigel Shepherd, Resolution chair, said.