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2 June 2014

‘Children suffer’ as cuts to legal aid penalise parents in court

Almost half of all parents fighting to get access to their children through the courts are being made to do so without legal advice, family magistrates warn today, reports The Independent.

A survey of nearly 500 justices reveals that 46 per cent of the people seen by magistrates in private family courts are now representing themselves.

Almost of all of the magistrates questioned said they believed that self-representation was having a negative impact on the court’s work – leading to delays and potential unfairness if one parent is legally represented but the other is not.

“We and our legal adviser do our best, but time is not on our side,” one magistrate said.

“An impossible two-tier system has been created, between those that have [legal advice] and those that don’t.’

The rise in self-representation comes as a result of changes to legal aid provision, which came into effect in April 2013, means that many more people are no longer eligible for financial support in family court proceedings.

Between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of self-represented parties in child-related cases rose by 40 per cent.

The Government maintains that self-representation is no barrier to justice, but this is now being questioned by magistrates.

The survey for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent on Sunday, in partnership with the Magistrates’ Association, surveyed a sample group of 461 magistrates sitting in a variety of courts across the UK.

The survey found:

  • 46% of those seen by magistrates in the private family courts represented themselves;
  • 97% of magistrates who saw a person representing themselves believed that such self-representation had a negative impact on the court’s work;
  • 62% of magistrates said litigants in person had a negative impact on the court’s work most or all of the time.

One respondent replying to the survey said: “In family [courts], if one side is represented and the other not, it makes it very difficult to have a fair hearing, as litigants in person find it difficult to cross-examine and don’t understand the process.”

Another added: “Justice is limited to those who can afford it.”

Read more on this story here.