Family law and divorce without legal aid

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The Court of the Kitchen Table

What happens when couples going through a divorce, having to sort out child support, the future of the matrimonial home, or even pension splitting upon divorce, have no access to a family lawyer?  I have talked before about what may happen when legal aid is withdrawn from family law.

My gut instinct tells me, and any other family lawyer you ask, that the withdrawal of legal aid will lead to more people trying to sort it out themselves – the DIY divorce route – or representing themselves in court (as litigants in person).  The court system is already  struggling with budget cuts and is ill-equipped to deal with an upsurge in self-reppers.

Gut instinct is fine but it’s always helpful to see some objective evidence and I therefore read, with keen interest, the results of a study sponsored by Simpson Millar Solicitors which can be found here.  The stand out headline is that 65% of women and 53% of men in Leeds and Manchester would try to get by on their own in a divorce situation.

I am very troubled by this stat.  God knows how two spouses, both unrepresented, can sort out complex issues around the kitchen table.  I can just imagine the conversations where words like ‘clean break’ will be bandied around without any understanding of the long-term consequences for both spouses and their children should they actually end up with a clean break.

The challenge for the legal profession is how to preserve access to justice and mitigate some of the worst effects of family breakdown: like the provision of expert legal advice. Some of us in the legal profession still give a damn about this even though it’s clear the Government doesn’t.  The majority of the retail operators about to move into the legal market (estimated value £25 billion) have not come from a background or training that still sees ‘the law’ and the profession of lawyer as offering society something more valuable than a ‘commodity’.  These retailers will cherry pick the best bits and won’t give a second thought for Kevin and Tracy sitting around the kitchen table in Manchester and Leeds.


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  1. Jonathan James’s avatar

    I have a feeling that the traditional legal retainer to advise and represent throughout will reduce sharply. Instead, parties will consult legal advisers periodically throughout the procedure, while doing much of the legwork themselves. So the distinction between solicitor and counsel will also diminish. Fixed fees will become far more commonplace and direct access barristers will probably find themselves with a significant market advantage.


    1. DivorceFT’s avatar

      I can’t argue with much of what you say, Jonathan. The market for legal services is predicted to increase over the next few years but I’m certain the market itself is going to be fragmented: there will be a number of legal services providers (traditional law firms and the new retailers) and the delivery models will probably be diverse. I agree that clients will be looking for firms who provide intelligent automation of standard information processing and allow money to be saved for spending on high-quality advice.

      Direct access barristers may not fare as well as you predict. As solicitors know, our clients want us available at all times and the administration (regulation) is anything but a light touch. Barristers are not used to dealing with such demands and it may come as a shock to find your preparation for a hearing is being interrupted every 5 minutes by client calls. Discuss!



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