Separating parents are giving up on the courts and may take the law into their own hands in trying to see their children, family lawyers have warned.
This follows publication of new figures showing a sharp drop in the number of private family law cases.
CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) statistics show there were 2,928 new private law cases in July – a 36% fall on the same month last year.
Between April 2013 and March 2014, the number of new cases rose 2% on the previous financial year to 46,414. New cases for the first six months were 15% higher than the same period in the previous year, with demand in April, May June, July and August at record levels.
However, since October demand has slowed with lower figures recorded than in the previous financial year.
The trend has been declared deeply worrying by the chair of the Law Society’s family law committee, Naomi Angell, and the chair of Resolution’s children committee, Simon Bethel.
They attributed the fall to parents giving up on the court system as a result of the legal aid cuts introduced in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The act removed legal aid for most private family law cases from April 2013.
Bethel doubted the drop was due to cases being diverted to mediation, for which public funding remains available, as figures from the Ministry of Justice show the number of cases referred to mediation have plummeted.
Despite the huge rise in parties representing themselves, he said the figures suggest parents are not finding their way through the ‘maze’ of options regarding their children when they separate.
‘Rather than receiving expert help to try and secure working shared care arrangements for their children, they are giving up,’ he said.
Bethel said: ‘This drop in court applications could mean that there are more separated families where children are needlessly missing out on a relationship with one of their parents, which has long-term repercussions for the child and for their family.’
Angell said parents are not turning to mediation as they do not realise legal aid remains available to fund it. In addition, she said the pathway to mediation – through initial advice given by solicitors – has been ‘torn away’.
She warned that the lack of access to legal advice and to the courts may mean that while in many cases parents simply give up, in others they may abduct their children.
‘We were always worried that the cuts would mean that out of desperation people would take things into their own hands,’ said Angell.
‘I am absolutely certain that children are being denied access to their parents – which seriously undermines the concept of shared parenting being introduced by the Children and Families Bill,’ she added.