Mediation, legal aid and domestic violence: The last week in family law

National Family Mediation, the largest provider of family mediation in England and Wales, has reported that a Government-funded scheme it is organising is successfully diverting separated parents away from courtroom battles and helping them negotiate instead, enabling them to better support their children. The At-Court Mediation project, a year-long pilot launched in March 2014, helps parents who have been separated for more than two years, and who are currently undergoing court processes over child-related issues. Funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, it operates in three pilot areas: Herefordshire, Berkshire and West Yorkshire, providing mediation at family courts, and one-to-one support to reduce conflict between couples.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has published a report, based on interviews and a survey of legal practitioners, assessing the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’) on our system of justice a year after implementation in April 2013. LASPO abolished legal aid for most private law family matters. Nicholas Lavender QC, Chairman of the Bar Council said: “Much of what we feared about LASPO has come to pass. Individuals dealing with life-changing legal issues are denied fair access to justice if they cannot afford it. A rise in self-representation is clogging the courts and creating additional costs to the tax payer, free frontline legal advisors are creaking under the strain, pro bono lawyers cannot cope with the demand, and the safety net the government created for providing legal aid in ‘exceptional cases’ is not fit for purpose.” The Bar Council said that the increased number of Litigants in Person, particularly in the family and civil courts, is placing unprecedented pressures on courts and voluntary services. Nearly 90% of respondents who work with family courts and 70% of respondents from civil courts reported an increase in self-representation, resulting in cases not being properly presented, which can lead to extra delays, pressures and costs on the court system, as well as litigants not making points or speaking up when they should, so damaging their case.

Domestic violence charity Refuge has teamed up with ITV’s Loose Women to launch a powerful new domestic violence campaign. To mark the launch of the campaign, Refuge and Loose Women have released the results of a YouGov survey which showed that over 1 in 3 British women have experienced domestic violence and that almost two fifths of victims tell no one. Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive of Refuge said: “Victims of domestic violence often feel trapped and isolated.  They may feel ashamed of what has happened to them, or they may be fearful of speaking out. The results from the survey confirm this – showing that 35% of women reported that they would not want anyone to know if they were experiencing domestic violence.”

The High Court has granted permission for a campaign group to challenge a government policy depriving victims of domestic violence access to legal aid. Rights of Women sought permission for a judicial review challenging the lawfulness of the government’s legal aid cuts introduced in April 2013 which it says prevent victims getting legal aid, even when it is clear there has been violence, or ongoing risk of violence, unless they can show prescribed evidence. A full hearing will take place later this year.

Cafcass has published a review of 300 Children’s Guardians’ views on the decisions of local authorities around care applications over a three week period in November 2013. The findings endorse much of the work of social workers, considering, in general, that local authorities are bringing the right cases to court, usually at the right time, and with the cases having been well prepared.

And finally, Mr Justice Mostyn has said that women who begin new relationships soon after their marriage break-up risk harming their divorce settlement. In AB v CB he said that dating before divorce was a “fly in the ointment” for family court judges asked to decide how much money husbands should give wives following marriage break-ups, and that women risked losing their share of the spoils because judges might naturally assume they would set up home with their new partners, assuring their financial future.