As managing partner of a law firm you would expect me to say that the concept of do it yourself law is as absurd as that of DIY heart surgery. Nevertheless, we are increasingly seeing litigants in person attempting to navigate the justice system's labyrinthine corridors.
Following cutbacks to the Ministry of Justice's legal aid budget this trend is only likely to increase with the welfare of families gravely at risk.
Back in November, the Civil Justice Council (CJC) warned that the government's proposed cuts in legal aid would lead to a problematic increase in the number of Litigants in Person (LiP). Throughout the early part of 2012 press reports suggested that LiPs were wreaking havoc in the courts. District Judge Nick Crichton spoke with a shudder of "more and more people coming to court in private law cases...wanting to spill blood on the court carpet".
According to the findings of a Simpson Millar family law survey a majority of people in the north of England would avoid the courts if they were to divorce, but 10 per cent would seek to represent themselves.
Few people are at their best during a divorce. Many will feel financially and emotionally insecure, and fearful of the expense and stress they think will be associated with legal proceedings; without legal aid, some will shun the courts altogether, while others will seek to cut costs and conduct DIY divorces as LiPs.
This is the very definition of a false economy as trying to muddle through and reach a settlement without legal advice, or attempting to represent yourself in court, are high-risk strategies. The involvement of children raises the stakes higher still.
Family law is 'soft' law in the sense that it rarely involves sharp suits, multinational corporations and tortuous legal fine-print. Mostly, it's about people. But that doesn't mean that access to justice in family cases in any sense dispensable. 'Muddling through' is a term that should never have currency in a legal setting; but with the cuts to be delivered by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act mean this option may have to be pursued to an increasing degree.
We see family law as a key priority in our business. Our recent merger with long-standing Leeds family specialists McAras has strengthened our family law division immeasurably - it would be unfortunate, to say the least, if this kind of expertise were to be seen as a luxury, rather than a necessity, by families facing the prospect of divorce.
Inevitably, these families - at a time when they're at their most vulnerable - are now being targeted by online opportunists flogging so-called 'DIY Divorces'. The promise of a quick and easy end to your marriage might seem appealing to some, but concluding a fair divorce settlement isn't something that can be achieved in five minutes. Doing so, like most rush-jobs leaves families, individuals and perhaps most regretfully children, in danger of being severely let down further down the road.
Justice isn't a question of short-term convenience. The scars left by a badly-managed divorce settlement can take years to heal.
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