‘SOUL-destroying’ Government cutbacks are forcing mothers and fathers to represent themselves in court and creating an ‘unfair’ system, a lawyer has warned.
Worthing associate legal executive Nicky Ingram believes legal aid cutbacks are putting increasing strain on the family law system, with cases taking longer as unrepresented individuals muddle through hearings.
She has reinvented herself as a McKenzie Friend, offering affordable legal advice to help combat the issue.
She said: “It’s not good. One man phoned me up from Scotland as he could not get access to his children but I could not help him because of the distance.
“The next thing I knew he had committed suicide. People are under such extreme stress.”
The legal aid cutbacks were introduced in April 2013, with funding for the majority of family cases withdrawn. A solicitor told the Herald at the time the changes would ‘threaten the public’s access to justice’.
Miss Ingram said they had created an imbalance, as one unrepresented family member may be up against a high-income ex-partner – a situation she described as ‘soul destroying’.
She said: “When the court date finally arrives, the tensions are clear and parents often find it difficult to stay on track and talk about the reason they are there.
“I am representing a mum who doesn’t get any help and the dad has a high income and she is in fear of losing her son. The system is totally unfair now. If you have got money then you can get help and if you haven’t you are left floundering.”
The Citizens’ Advice Bureau has also noticed an effect as a result of the cutbacks.
A spokesman for the local branch said: “We used to have a family law team as part of the community legal advice service, who could represent clients who were unable to afford to pay for a solicitor.
“However since losing this team due to the legal aid cuts, we’ve seen a huge rise in clients who can’t afford to pay for legal representation, for example when going through a divorce.
“We can refer these clients to a mediation service, however at a cost of approximately £90 per session this is still out of the budget of many people.”
Operating as a McKenzie Friend, Miss Ingram can now assist clients in preparing their cases.
They cannot formally represent clients but can guide them through the legal process, offering advice and guidance throughout. Many McKenzie Friends are retired lawyers but do not have to be legally qualified.
Latest national figures on family cases, between July and September 2014, show both parties were unrepresented in 28 per cent of all cases.
In response, family justice minister Simon Hughes said: “There have always been litigants in person in family cases - around half of private family cases before the introduction of legal aid reform involved at least one person who was representing themselves.
“Figures published recently show no strong evidence that the length of court hearings have significantly changed since legal aid reforms last year. But ministers are not complacent and we will continue to monitor the impact of legal aid reforms.
“We want to make sure family cases happen in the least divisive way possible, which is why we encourage people to use mediation and other out of court options. This is why we have also recently announced new measures to give better support to those who decide to go to court.”