A recent BBC television programme Panorama dealt with the issue of DIY Justice in the light of Legal Aid reforms that were introduced in April 2013. It looked at the increasing number of “Litigants in person”, i.e. people who represent themselves in court because Legal Aid is not available and they cannot afford to pay for Legal Representation.
Legal Aid was introduced in 1949. By 2010 the Legal Aid spend was £2.1 billion. In April 2013 the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force with the aim of cutting £3.5 million from the Legal Aid budget.
Under the new reforms Legal Aid is not generally available for most divorce, financial cases or children cases.
There are some situations where Legal Aid may be available but this is extremely restrictive; domestic violence victims can apply for Legal Aid but there is a time limit of 2 years. If they are outside that time Legal Aid is not available, so a victim is potentially cross examining his/her abuser in court.
LASPO introduced the concept of “Exceptional Case Funding” which was a discretionary ground for the granting of Legal Aid.
In reality, it has not operated as a safety net. In 2014 1,500 applications were made for Legal Aid, and only 69 were successful.
Many litigants in person struggle filling in the court forms or understanding the court process, let alone representing themselves at a hearing. It is important that a case is presented in the right way and not only do litigants in person not have any experience of this, but they are also emotionally involved in the case.
Cases involving litigants in person take 50% longer than if both parties are legally represented. There is a worry about miscarriages of justice and that the scales of justice are tipping against those who cannot afford representation.
In some circumstances Mediation may be an alternative to court proceedings; it is not a panacea for all ills but it does give participants control over decisions that they make.
Before any Mediation takes place the Mediator conducts a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to assess fully whether the case is suitable for mediation. The MIAM process involves screening for domestic abuse which may mean that Mediation is not suitable.
In some cases parties do want to mediate but they do not wish to be in the same room. In that situation, shuttle mediation can be offered which means that the participants have their own rooms and the mediator travels between them in mediating a settlement.
Legal Aid is still available for mediation subject to the parties financial means. If a Mediation is successful then the parties can still have a Court Order made at the end of the day to make an agreement legally binding. This can be either in relation to the children or in relation to financial matters.
If you would like to explore Family Mediation further, please contact Christine Pickwell at Ringrose Law on 01205 314617 or [email protected].
Christine has been a Partner of Ringrose Law since 1999, and her specialisms are dealing with Divorce, Child Care and Mediation. Christine is a Resolution trained Mediator. She is a member of the Law Society's Family Mediation Accreditation Scheme and approved by the Law Society to conduct MIAMS (Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings).