Legal aid, mediation and adoption: The last week in family law (October 1st, 2014)

Research by the Children’s Commissioner has shown that the impact of the legal aid changes on children has been vastly underestimated. The research showed that in 70% of private family cases one or both parties did not have legal representation compared with 54% who had it previously. Under the ‘exceptional funding’ regime, which the Government created to ensure Legal Aid was still given to people whose human rights were at risk, only 57 grants were provided in its first year, rather than the 3,700 the Ministry of Justice had expected. Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England said “The human cost of Legal Aid reforms is clearly immense. Behind the evidence in our research are countless heart rending stories of children and vulnerable young adults whose lives have been seriously affected by their inability to access legal representation. This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice.”

Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes has told a conference of the Family Mediators Association in London that the Government wants the best family justice. He said: “It is not the sign of a civilised family justice system to have more and more people litigating in court whether with lawyers alongside them or not. A civilised system is to have more people resolving disputes away from the often confrontational atmosphere of the courtroom. That is why we continue to give our support, both through legal aid funding and promotional work, to alternatives like mediation which can resolve disputes without going to court. Mediation is often quicker and cheaper and leads to more amicable outcomes which both sides can accept because they have agreed them together.”

The latest statistics show that the Government’s mediation push has had little impact on mediation numbers. The Legal Aid Quarterly statistics show that there were 1,778 publicly funded mediation starts between April and June, which is up slightly from 1,751 in the previous quarter. However, these figures show a significant year on year fall, with 2,706 mediation starts in the equivalent period in 2013.

The same statistics also show that legal aid funding in family cases dropped 27% compared to the same quarter last year and the latest quarterly court statistics show that the number of cases that started in family courts in England and Wales in April to June 2014 dropped 19% compared to the equivalent quarter of 2013. The number of private law cases where both parties were represented fell by nearly 40% in April to June 2014 compared to the same quarter the previous year.

The President of the Family Division has dismissed 180 divorce petitions issued in England and Wales after a widespread fraud was uncovered. A firm based in Italy was charging up to £3,700 to arrange the divorces, using 137 different county courts to cover their tracks. Police found an accommodation address in Maidenhead, Berkshire, was used by 179 couples as proof of residency, in order to give the courts in this country jurisdiction to deal with the divorces. The Italian couples involved were prepared to pay the firm in an attempt to circumvent the slow-moving Italian judicial system, where couples have to live apart for three years before divorcing.

And finally, the Department for Education has released the latest statistics for adopted children in England. These show that 5,050 children were adopted between April 2013 and March 2014, up from the 4,010 children adopted the previous year. Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, said: “Today’s figures show a significant and sustained rise in the number of adoptions – an increase of 26% in the last 12 months. This means thousands more of our most vulnerable children are finding the loving and permanent homes they so desperately need. We also promised to remove delay and frustration from the process for both children and adopters. Today’s figures show that we are delivering on that promise. The system is working more quickly, as well as providing more support to families after an adoption has taken place.”