The family court system is in danger of “collapsing in on itself” after a surge in the number of warring parents turning up in person to launch child custody cases because of legal aid cuts, leading lawyers are warning.
In-laws blamed for one in 10 divorces Photo: ALAMY/POSED BY MODELS
New figures show the number of children caught up in legal battles between separating or divorcing parents jumped by 27 per cent last month and is currently running at almost twice the level seen two years ago.
Cafcass, the agency which looks after children’s interests in the family courts, said that it received 5,061 new cases involving family splits in England in May, by far the highest ever seen in a single month.
It has piled new pressure on the agency, which has been already severely stretched by a separate dramatic rise in the number of children being taken into care in the wake of the Baby P scandal four years ago.
The surge in demand for it to be involved in so-called “private law” cases follows the removal of legal aid for couples in most divorce cases.
Under changes which came into effect on April 1st 2013, an estimated 200,000 people a year who would have been able to get legal aid in divorce and child contact cases no longer qualify.
The months leading up to the change saw a steady rise in cases as couples attempted register before the deadline. But the increase since the cuts has been far more marked.
Lawyers have reported seeing a dramatic rise in people simply turning up court to file applications and planning to represent themselves.
Meanwhile mediation services – something the Government has been keen to promote to prevent domestic disputes being dragged through the courts – have reported a drop in demand, apparently because fewer people have been to see solicitors who would be able refer them.
Christina Blacklaws, the family lawyers’ representative on the Law Society council, said there was now a real danger that the delays could become so acute that some desperate parents might try to take matters into their own hands.
“The whole system is really creaking at seams and could collapse in on itself,” she said.
“This points to some quite difficult times in the future.”
Ms Blacklaws, who is Director of Family Law at the Co-operative Legal Services, added:
“It could mean that there would not be proper access to justice for those facing family breakdown because they would have to wait so long.
“The worst case scenario could be people just taking the law into their own hands taking children from school – desperate ways – because they cannot get proper resolution of their case in a reasonable time frame.”
Vicki McLynn, a partner in family law with Pannone warned that the spike in demand could be a sign of things to come, raising the danger that child contact cases will become more acrimonious.
“Previously, individuals with legal representation might have attempted to negotiate a resolution to their particular difficulties without going to court,” she explained.
“However, the withdrawal of public funding for most types of cases has meant court potentially now being the first and only option considered by those now having to represent themselves, despite Government’s efforts to increase the number of couples taking part in mediation.
“Given the considerable workload already being handled by Cafcass, the fear is that this fresh influx of work may cause delays in cases while their reports are prepared.
“That, in turn, only risks increasing frustration for parents who have limited or no contact with their children as well as distress for the children concerned.”