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Private family law cases increase

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The Independent reported on a 27% increase of private family law cases before the courts in May of this year compared to the same time last year.

CAFCASS released figures yesterday revealing that 9,398 new private law family cases were heard in May. This compares to 7,388 cases heard in May 2012.

This increase is likely to relate to the fact that from 1st April 2013 Legal Aid was no longer available for cases of this sort. As a result, parents involved in disputes over their children rushed to instruct a solicitor on Legal Aid before it was withdrawn.

Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of CAFCASS, quoted in the article promotes the use of mediation as a better alternative to court proceedings. An NSPCC spokesman echoed these sentiments. Both argued that a negotiated settlement was better than something imposed by the court.

These two opinions are of course statements of the blindingly obvious. The fact is that nowadays it is only the most difficult, intractable and hostile disputes which end up before the court as contested matters.

Cases which are suitable for mediation or an alternative means of resolution are usually siphoned off at an early stage. This leaves cases where specialist family legal advice and representation is very important. Why is it important? Well contrary to some of the views expressed by outsiders, specialist family lawyers are trained to move towards reasonable and realistic solutions. The stereotype of aggressive showboating litigation lawyers is a thing of the past. These individuals have long since been slapped down by Judges in all forms of litigation.

In the family justice system there has been a greater degree of self regulation and clients are not only advised but mentored towards a fair and sustainable resolution with the best interests of the children at its heart. It is not a course that even the most reasonable parent locked in a dispute over his/her children finds easy to navigate.

Unfortunately the assistance of a specialist family lawyer through legal aid in these difficult cases no longer exists unless domestic abuse is a significant factor.

So it is no wonder that while it was still available, a lot of parents made a last minute dash to sign up to legal aid. It is disappointing that spokespeople for CAFCASS and NSPCC have failed to recognise the immense loss to troubled families caused by the removal of legal aid for these difficult cases.

By Mike Devlin, head of the family law department