Standing alone, an adoption strategy and statistics: The last two weeks in family law

A report into the experiences of litigants in person in the family justice system resulting from the legal aid cuts in 2013 has been published by Citizens Advice. The report Standing alone: going to the family court without a lawyer presents Citizens Advice research that reviews the challenges faced by litigants in person and the gaps in service left by the abolition of legal aid, exploring what people’s experiences are, not only in court but before and after the case, to assess how well current services meet people’s needs. The report finds that not only do litigants in person have difficulties in representing themselves, but also that their experience adversely affects other aspects of their lives. The report makes three key recommendations:

  1. Litigants in person need access to reliable advice and information to determine the validity of their case; investigate alternatives to court; progress their case through different stages; represent themselves effectively and deal with outcomes.
  2. Processes, physical courts and professionals’ behaviour should respond to the increased numbers of litigants in person by ensuring that best practice for working with laypeople is provided consistently.
  3. Support for vulnerable people should be more easily accessed. Victims of domestic abuse should be able to access the legal advice and representation to which they are entitled. Other vulnerable groups, such as people with mental health problems, should be signposted to appropriate services.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “The demands of going to court without legal representation can put people’s jobs and health at risk. For people representing themselves in the family courts, whether in a divorce case or to keep the legal right to see their children, the workload can be unmanageable. In extreme cases people are quitting their jobs so they have the time to do research before going to court.”

A new strategy aimed at transforming the life chances of those children who spend up to 18 months in care waiting to be adopted has been unveiled by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. The four-year strategy sets out to deliver a system where all children are matched with adoptive parents without delay, free from the shackles of council red tape. It also intends that “every single child adopted from care will have a designated teacher and ‘virtual school head’ who will provide tailored support to help children overcome trauma and give these young people the best possible education.” Nicky Morgan said: “Today’s strategy is a watershed moment – a new line in the sand. For the first time ever, we are explicitly setting out how we will transform the lives of our most vulnerable children by making sure they get the opportunities they deserve … This radical new vision will make sure decisions rightly prioritise children’s long-term stability and happiness, so that children are placed with their new family as quickly as possible – helping them fulfil their potential and get the very best start in life.”

The latest Family court statistics quarterly, for the period October to December 2015, has been published by the Ministry of Justice. Amongst the key findings were that the number of cases that started in family courts in England and Wales in October to December 2015 was 62,456, up 6% compared to the equivalent quarter of 2014, that the average time for the disposal of a care or supervision application made in October to December 2015 was 28 weeks, and that there has been a decrease in the time taken for private law cases overall in the last year: down 1.3 weeks to 14.1 weeks, reversing the upward trend seen following the legal aid cuts in 2013.

And finally, the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency have also published their latest quarterly statistics on activity in the legal aid system for England and Wales, for the period October to December 2015. The statistics showed that the number of mediation information and assessment meetings (‘MIAMs’) has halved, compared to the level they were at prior to the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters in April 2013. Mediation starts also fell by a similar proportion to MIAMs following the legal aid cuts, but have recovered somewhat and are now around 60% of the level prior to the cuts. The number of agreements reached in mediation has also stabilised at about 60% of the level prior to the cuts. Overall, legal aid expenditure on completed family workload during January to December 2015 amounted to £567 million, of which £416 million related to public law work, £147 million to private law work and £4 million to mediation.