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Child Welfare Hit by Increase of Litigants in Person in the Family Courts

Reasons to choose Wilson Browne

Legal aid cuts over recent years are resulting in a growing number of parents representing themselves in the family courts. The most significant cuts to family law were in 2013 following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

Family proceedings and the associated rules and procedures are designed for qualified legal professionals meaning litigants in person can struggle to navigate through this complex process during which they are undoubtedly going through one of the most difficult periods of their lives.

The statistics from Family Law Statistics Quarterly are dramatic. Prior to the introduction of LASPO, both parties would have legal representation in around 50% of private children cases. This fell to just 19% in 2018. Contrastingly, prior to LASPO, neither party would be legally represented in just 10% of cases. According to statistics from 2018, this figure has risen dramatically to 37%. Worryingly, these statistics would also indicate that there is a high proportion of cases where one party is represented and the other isn’t, meaning that a child’s relationship with one parent could be put at risk, simply because of funding issues.

I have represented clients who have previously been attempting to represent themselves and ended up in the sort of situation they would never have been in had they had access to legal advice at the outset. I have given an anonymous example, below, of a recent case I dealt with.

The client in question had not seen their child in 5 years. Upon separation, that client had issued an application for a child arrangements order him/herself and attempted to represent him/herself during the proceedings. Not only did he/she finish up with an order for no contact at all with the child, he/she also ended up with a S91(14) bar against him/her. Section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989 empowers the court, when disposing of an application, to make an order that prevents further future applications without the permission of the court. The client in this case saved up money over many years in order to take the matter back to court with legal representation. In this case, I was successful in gaining the permission of the court for the client to make his application and while the matter is not yet concluded, it is likely that contact will be reinstated over the coming months.

One may think that the above case is an extreme example. Having worked in the family law arena for 4 years now, I know that this is not the case. In this matter, there were no issues of violence or abuse, simply a case involving an acrimonious break up. Upon reviewing the previous proceedings, it was clear to me that the main issue was the fact that my client did not understand how to conduct the case himself whereas his/her former partner was represented. The end result is that this child has now gone many years without contact with a parent.

The Children Act 1989 sets out that a child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration. Clearly, where parties have not had legal advice and are not represented, it is difficult to see how they can truly put their best case forward and subsequently, how the court can truly prioritise the welfare of any child.

Are you having difficulty reaching agreement with a former partner over arrangements for your children? Do you have a former partner who is stopping you seeing your children? Are you going through a divorce or separation and need some advice? If so, the family team at Wilson Browne can help. We can advise on different options to suit your budget. Call us today for an initial free consultation.

Joe O’Brien

Posted:

Joe O’Brien

Solicitor

Joe is a solicitor who specialises in divorce, children, financial remedy, TOLATA, cohabitee disputes and pre-nuptial agreements and has previously provided commentary to the BBC.