Legal aid cuts have led to an alarming number of people having to represent themselves in family courts in the North East.
The proportion of unrepresented North East parents attending court to contest custody of their children and other family matters has leapt from 34% to 53% of litigants since the removal of legal aid from family lawyers in April 2013.
Between April and December 2012, 4,698 people represented themselves at North East courts for child-related proceedings.
In the same nine-month period for 2013, the figure jumped to 7,562. This is a year-on-year rise of 61%; the highest in England and already more than the previous year’s total of 6,502.
Publication of the Ministry of Justice figures, secured via a Freedom of Information request, has sparked a call among some of the region’s lawyers to keep warring parents away from the courts.
Seven law firms in Newcastle currently offer a fixed-fee service which offers couples a way of resolving disputes without the need to go to court.
Sue McArthur, a lawyer at Newcastle-based firm McKeag and Co, said: “The massive increase in people representing themselves is leading to huge delays at court as judges struggle to help people representing themselves understand the proceedings and what is happening.
“Often people find that decisions go against them because they’ve not been able to refer the judge to the relevant legal points of their case. They can end up getting too emotional or angry and not presenting their case in the best possible way.
“To respond to this crisis in representation the legal industry is having to completely rethink how best to serve clients.”
Marc Lopatin, founder of LawyerSupportedMediation.com said: “The answer is not putting lawyers back in the courtroom at the public’s expense. Instead, the government should be doing all it can to encourage lawyers and mediators to work in tandem. This is the only way to make available the support parents need at a price most can afford.”
But The Law Society - which represents solicitors in the UK - says removing solicitors from the process will have a knock-on effect on children whose parents are fighting in court.
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck said: “The legislation, which came into force last April, could easily cost more than it is intended to save.
“As well as all the knock-on costs to the tax payer and the social consequences of severely limiting access to legal aid, it is the couples fighting in court and their children who will be the worst hit.
“Removing solicitors from the process and cutting access to justice for people on low incomes is a devastating false economy.
“As we have also outlined to the Justice Select Committee, the reality is that solicitors steer separating couples away from the courts and towards alternatives such as mediation.
“The Law Society has previously suggested alternative savings that would make a bigger contribution to reducing the deficit by making the civil justice system more efficient, but the Government chose to ignore this.”