Prior to the removal of Legal Aid for a number of areas of law, including family disputes, many solicitors warned that the cuts could have drastic consequences. It now appears that these fears have been realised as latest Ministry of Justice figures show that the number of families attending mediation services has dropped significantly since legal aid was phased out for family matters in April.
Although family mediation has been a long term solution for many families, it is only recently that the Government decided to push the services as an alternative to long drawn out court battles with family mediation used to settle a myriad of disputes including financial arguments and custody battles.
However, statistics compiles and released by the Ministry of Justice show that the number of families being referred to private services such as LB mediation services have fallen by up to 47% since the legal aid cuts were first introduced.
This is despite the fact that legal aid still exists for mediation.
As a result, the providers and supporters of mediation have warned that unless action is taken then the entire industry could be put at risk. This could not only have dire effects on family mediation but also services such as workplace and commercial mediation, as without the steady business from legal practitioner referrals, many practitioners would struggle to support their full time business.
Given that mediation is used in a variety of settings, to solve workplace bullying, unfair dismissal claims, as well as in commercial and civil situations, the prospect of a lack of mediators could have dire and far reaching consquences far beyond a lack of family mediators.
One mediation expert discussed the cuts to legal aid and their consequences, saying “Lawyers need to be gatekeepers and earn a meaningful fee from supporting clients through mediation. The MoJ’s hopes that family mediation would boom once legal aid lawyers were frozen out of the picture are being dashed. It’s a pity that the MoJ see this as either mediator or lawyer.” Both should work together, he urged. “There’s still legal aid for mediation and the government has made an extra £10m available but there are no referrals being made.”
Whilst many might think that a cut in legal aid would also decrease the number of cases being referred to court, this is so far not true and one of the first consequences of a lack of mediation taking place is that an increase in the number of cases entering the family courts system is being seen. Figures released by CAFCASS (the Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) show that between April and August there were some 22,209 new private family cases which is an increase of 18% on the same period for 2012.
This influx of new cases is causing huge delays in the family court system and causing many locked in bitter disputes to have to wait for their cases to be heard and settled.
To many, this seems extremely wasteful when the mediators who could be settling the affairs before they go to court are simply sitting waiting for their referrals.