Newcastle’s Top Divorce and Family Law Specialist comments in the North East Times
“Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles” – Charles Chaplin
As of April 1st, Legal Aid for family law cases all but ceased to exist. Irrespective of financial circumstances, now everyone must pay for legal advice at the full rate to assist them when family relationships break down and no agreement can be reached.
Legal aid was created in 1949 by an Act that was part of the sweeping reforms to the welfare state introduced by Attlee’s post-war government. Introduced at a time of great austerity, its demise comes, ironically, in a similar economic climate.
Little publicised prior to the Act coming into force, within days the media was awash with news of the cuts and predictions as to the likely effects. Many agree that it is extremely likely that our Court system will see a significant rise in litigants in person – people conducting their own case and representing themselves in Court. So much so, the Bar Council (barristers’ governing body) has felt compelled to produce a 74 page manual on how to conduct a case, in which they urge people not to attempt to imitate legal characters they have seen on television.
This may not be as funny as it seems: hundreds of television channels and easy internet access lead to a belief that the answer to anything can be found at the touch of a button. It is true that there is help, information and support available online, but there is also inaccuracy, inexperience, personal bias and downright misinformation. Although there has always been the right in this country to represent oneself, the simple fact is that the majority of people choose not to, and with good reason.
There is a sudden proliferation of websites offering DIY divorce kits for knock-down prices. Filling out forms to effect a divorce is the most straightforward part of guiding someone through the end of their marriage. To focus on a mainly procedural administrative process misses the point entirely.
In a divorce, there are many issues that are likely to need to be addressed by the parties, from purely practical arrangements to fundamental matters such as arrangements for the children and property division. These are likely to be far more contentious than whether or not the parties should divorce, and no DIY kit can provide a quick fix to such problems.
Matrimonial lawyers are being challenged to provide a solution to the inequity created by Government policy. Some even suggest this will force legal firms to become more competitive. That may be right, but do not mistake cheap for affordable. The fact of the matter is that the best way to save money in these circumstances is to take a conciliatory approach and try to reach agreement on as many matters as possible.
Family lawyers are not driven to “win” cases; in family situations there are rarely winners and losers. Rather, they seek to guide the parties to a fair and workable solution. Where parties are unable to reach agreement between themselves, alternatives to costly court proceedings are available, including mediation and collaborative law. Whilst neither service is free to access, both are likely to cost significantly less than contested court proceedings, and some people will continue to be eligible for legal aid for mediation.
In mediation, couples volunteer to negotiate face to face about the arrangements for their future with the help of a neutral third party, the mediator, whereas under the collaborative law process, each person appoints their own collaboratively trained lawyer and negotiations take place during joint face to face meetings with lawyers present.
This may seem like the end of family law as we know it, but it is also a signal for each of us to take responsibility for our own future and to make it work.
Joanne Major is the principal and a trained Collaborative Lawyer of Major Family Law, the Divorce and Family Law Specialists, 12 West Road, Ponteland, Newcastle Upon Tyne. T: 01661 82 45 82
www.majorfamilylaw.co.uk. Twitter: @majorfamilylaw