Parents representing themselves in Court; what is the impact on the children?
When a relationship breaks down, and if the couple are not able to agree on decisions regarding children or finances, a first step can be for them to go to Family Mediation. However, in some circumstances this is not an option, if there is an accusation of domestic violence for example, or if one party refuses to take part. In this situation, the couple can often end up in Court. Over half of people who go to family court hearings represent themselves, and here Sam Miles, Family Partner, explains what impact this may inadvertently be having on the children involved, and how parents can work to avoid this.
Family legal aid cuts
A survey conducted by the Magistrates Association for Buzzfeed News shows that 68% of people represent themselves in family court hearings, up from 41% in 2014. “It is no surprise to see the increase, as legal aid was cut in 2014, leaving no option for some but to represent themselves and not seek legal support,” explains Sam. “By their very nature, family court hearings will be a sensitive, emotional, difficult and intimidating environment; the couple are there because they cannot agree and have conflicting views on subjects such as where and with whom their children should live, how often they should spend time with the absent parent, financial matters, or there are issues of domestic violence. Asking them to put these feelings to one side in order to adequately state their case is not justice for them or their children.”
The same survey showed that 95% of magistrates believe that when people represent themselves it has a negative impact on the effectiveness of the court. “Being emotionally involved in the case will lead to further conflict between parents, which will inevitably impact the children in the relationship,” continues Sam. “It can however also lead to more time in court as parents struggle to articulate themselves, or need time to understand the law and assess the arguments being put to them before responding. Magistrates have argued that this increase in the amount of hearings and the time spent in them counteracts the very reasons why legal aid was cut originally in 2015, and creates more uncertainty for the children who are caught in the middle of the dispute as they wait in limbo for the outcome.”
The findings of the research have supported magistrates’ views on the injustice facing those who must represent themselves in court, particularly when the other side is legally represented. The government has now stated they will review the impact of its cuts to legal aid and will report back later in 2018.
Sam comments, “Having a lawyer to represent you in this situation will mean you are not only supported legally but also emotionally. The Judge will not be interested in, and will not be persuaded by any attempt to discredit or personally attack the other party, which will always be tempting when putting the facts of your situation in front of them yourself. Using the lawyer’s experience, they can advise on the merits of your case, what the Court will be looking for in terms of how to reach a remedy, and will be able to keep the children at the heart of any outcome being reached.”
Since the legal aid cuts, there have been many changes to encourage the use of Family Mediation when coming to agreements. Sam concludes, “Some couples wish to avoid mediation as they see it as having to compromise when they believe they are in the right. Family mediation derives its success, however, from a neutral person helping parents understand that while there is history between them, it is the children who are now most important in your relationship and it is the role of the mediator to facilitate a mutual agreement. While it will be different for every family depending on your situation, we would always advise that family court is the last resort, and that every step is taken prior to this to avoid it.”
If you are interested in finding out more about how Family Mediation can help your family, you can contact Sam or the Family team on 02380 717431 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.