Legal issues concerning many aspects of family life have made the news lately. Arguably the most prominent involves the leading judge Sir James Munby, whose recent opinions on a case involving a vulnerable teenager shone a light on social care cases. In an unusual step, Mr Munby spoke about how if a girl would be forced out of care, the consequences would be dire.
The growing frustrations expressed even by those in high-ranking positions with the High Court suggests that changes are afoot throughout the legal sphere. Many of them centre around changes to Legal Aid, which is set to be pared back for many people.
Those most likely to be affected by any cuts are people with social care, custody and divorce cases to fight. The current scheme has enabled many poorer claimants to attend court cases by providing them with the necessary funding for proper legal representation. In scaling down Legal Aid, there could be a very real possibility that those people may be left with few options.
Mr Munby himself has tackled the government over their proposals to cut Legal Aid. His pleas had fallen on deaf ears, with the government’s initial decision from 2013 proving final. Since then, a string of stories about the impact of those cuts have surfaced. Aside from potentially putting an obstacle in front of poorer claimants, there is another knock-on effect.
Some of those going to family courts to resolve divorce proceedings, social care cases and the like are often left with little choice but to represent themselves. Rather than hiring family law experts, claimants are looking to go to court unassisted. This carries a number of risks, not least the possibility that many going down this route are likely to be ill-prepared.
Whilst self-representation is unorthodox, this won’t deter family law courts from turning down cases. Presently, there is no legal framework stopping claimants from representing themselves. It is a last resort, but for someone to go down this route, they need to do plenty of research and must argue their case in a controlled manner.
As more people look to represent themselves, divorce law specialists may need to change their approach. Regardless of how deep cuts to Legal Aid may be, trying to attract clients who seek a more cost-effective solution might benefit from receiving general legal advice rather than fully-blown representation in court.
With laws changing, there seems to be a shift in attitudes too, particularly when it comes to divorce. The most recent figures issued by the Office for National Statistics reveal that divorce rates in England and Wales are falling. Perhaps this is down to couples solving their problems or looking at alternatives, but whatever the reason, law cases of this nature will likely change.
As for the courts, whether social welfare cases are done on an individual basis or centred around a major event such as the Grenfell Tower fire, they seem certain to deal with a high volume of people trying to reach settlements.
They will need to change their approach as well, making sure that those representing themselves act in accordance with court etiquette. Also, they need to ensure that those claimants won’t end up being short-changed due to their lack of legal nous.