Cases without lawyers take up to 50% longer, warns National Audit Office
A DAMNING study into coalition legal aid cuts revealed yesterday that increasing numbers of families are being forced to represent themselves.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report found that the number of family court cases involving children in which neither party are represented by lawyers has nearly doubled in the last year.
It showed that there were 17,268 cases where both parties represented themselves in 2013/14 — an increase of 8,110 or 89 per cent on the previous year.
Of the 79,747 cases starting in the family courts including those not involving children, the number where both parties represented themselves increased by 18,519 or 30 per cent from the previous year.
NAO head Amyas Morse said that while the Ministry of Justice is on track to swiftly slash spending on civil legal aid the department had failed to think through the impact the changes would have on the wider system.
And the auditors estimated that the increased number of people representing themselves in family courts could cost the public purse a further £3.4 million a year, because these cases take 50 per cent longer.
Industry union PCS said the NAO findings support what it has been saying all along — that legal aid cuts would add costs to both the justice system and wider public sector.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “This report again shows that families who most need help are being let down because of this government’s political obsession with slashing public spending.”
PCS members who work in family courts have reported proceedings taking longer as unrepresented parties struggle to put their cases forward.
Family court staff are also warning that judges are having to spend more time trying to work out whether arguments have legal relevance.
PCS warns the cuts are failing families and particularly children, pointing out the Bar Council estimates 68,000 children a year are affected by the removal of legal aid for family contact and finance disputes.
The NAO report also says the use of mediation to settle disputes has fallen by 56 per cent, despite government hopes that it would increase under the changes to legal aid.
This is because lawyers are less likely to be on hand to refer people to mediation and means more court time and money is being wasted.