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Excluding lawyers from the divorce process is a false economy that will only pile on the agony
It will come as no surprise to anyone when the loss of legal aid in family cases triggers an increase in DIY divorces and has a profound effect on the families involved.
And it will come as no surprise to family lawyers that the withdrawal of access to us will result in more, not fewer, couples using the failing family courts.
After years of unwanted attention, legal aid for families was finally put out of its misery on April Fools’ Day. All that remains is legal aid for victims of domestic violence, and you can imagine how flawed the process of granting legal aid will be for people falling into that category. There are bound to be opportunistic ‘victims’ prepared to say anything to get legal aid, and there will also be genuine victims who fall foul of the strict criteria.
In the meantime, further cuts to the family courts system, already in meltdown, mean users face ever longer delays. The interlocutory hearing, designed as a form of judge-led mediation, become less effective, hindered as these hearings are by a shortage of judges who are on shorter fuses because of the chaotic conditions in which they are expected to operate.
So here’s the thing – couples who no longer have legal aid and cannot afford to pay for lawyers are ending up in court. There you see them – wandering the corridors, pale, confused and desperate.
The vast majority of divorcing couples who use lawyers to settle their issues – money and children – do so without having to go near a court. Lawyers talk to each other, do not (usually) hate each other and do deals.
Much has been made in recent years of the Government’s support for family mediation. Cynics among family lawyers – and there are a few – take the view that there may be a connection between the new-found enthusiasm for mediation and the intention to cut not just the funding for legal aid but also funding for the whole judicial system – judges, court staff, buildings, the lot.
Contrary to what the Government seems to think, mediation is not easy and is certainly not suitable for everyone. And if people do not know what it is, and do not have a lawyer to explain the process to them, they are far more likely to take themselves off to court and seek help from the overworked, resentful and not always helpful court staff.
Then, for a modest sum, there’s DIY divorce using online sites. These sites are mainly about the forms, and that is fine for couples with no children, no assets and no hard feelings. The rest need properly drafted financial consent orders and accurate financial disclosure combined with practical, tax-efficient legal advice.
It’s all very well for Chris Grayling or any other politician to say that families should be able to sort out their problems without needing access to expensive, or even cheap, lawyers, but the world of divorce is strewn with pitfalls for the unwary – husbands, wives and civil partners all have legal rights and res-ponsibilities.
Lawyers explain the issues, sort out the paperwork and keep everyone away from court. That is public money well spent.