Firm closures as a result of legal aid cuts are leaving separating parents without access to legal advice, with many giving up on settling disputes through the courts, family lawyers have warned.
Figures from Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) show that between April 2014 and March 2015 there were a total of 34,218 new private law cases – a drop of 27% from a year before.
But the number of cases in June 2015 was 33% higher than in June 2014.
Robert Hush, the chair of the Law Society family law committee, said: ‘The cutbacks in legal aid meant a lot of firms are now disappearing. If someone has a family law problem there are no lawyers in the local community anymore.
‘What that means is that people don’t know how to resolve their problems and are not making applications to the court.’
He said the 27% decline in cases reflected the number of people who have ‘just given up and are trying to muddle through’.
The government had hoped that when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) removed most family legal aid that clients would go to mediation, he said, but this has not happened as lawyers are no longer around to guide clients through this route.
Jo Edwards, chair of family law organisation Resolution, said: ‘We have consistently voiced our concerns that these statistics reflect the creation of a "lost generation" of separated families, where non-resident parents are simply giving up on the courts due to lack of access to legal support and uncertainty as to how to navigate the court system alone.
‘For children, this could very well mean losing contact with one of their parents.’
She said she was surprised by the jump in cases in June, but pointed out that the number of new cases was still 22% lower than before the effects of LASPO were first seen in June 2013. The act came into force on 1 April that year.
‘Further monitoring is needed to assess whether the recent increase is a mere anomaly, or an indicator of another shift in the changeable family justice environment,’ Edwards said.