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Publicly funded private family law cases fell by 83% in one quarter, claims Lawyer-Supported Mediation

Fall in mediation figures alarms Resolution

The Ministry of Justice has published legal aid statistics for April to June 2014. This is the first quarterly edition of the Legal Aid Statistics, which has previously been published only annually.

During the period the workload in family matters (ie legal help matters started and civil representation certificates granted) fell by 27% when compared to the same period of the previous year. Within that comparison, the workload in family public law has remained stable.

Lawyer-Supported Mediation has claimed that analysis of the figures reveals that publicly funded private family law cases fell by 83% between April and June 2014.

The organisation says that in that quarter the combined number of completed certificates for private law Children Act proceedings, financial provision and other family proceedings stood at 10,227. In sharp contrast, the number of certificates granted for the same period stood at 2366.

Lawyer-Supported Mediation points out that the ratio between the two totals underlines how LASPO will reduce casework levels in the years ahead. Total certificates granted for April to June 2014 amounted to just a quarter of number of corresponding cases completed in the same period.

The analysis also looked at the same quarter of 2012/13, the last full financial year before LASPO was enacted. In this period, the corresponding number of certificates logged as completed by the LAA stood at 14,168 while the number of certificates granted stood at 13,687. The difference between the two totals was only 3.3%.

More importantly, says L-S M, the year-on-year quarterly comparison shows the number of certificates granted by the LAA fell from 13,687 to 2,366, a drop of 83%.

Marc Lopatin, a trained mediator and founder of Lawyer Supported Mediation, said:

"The plummeting number of certificates being awarded shows LASPO in motion. Law firms overly dependent on legal aid revenues will need to find ways of earning more private fees. They will have to attract new clientele by offering services that private law firms will not. This is all about offering price certainty and affordability while balancing risk and return."

There has been an increase in the number of mediation assessments in April (when changes from the Children and Families Act came into effect) to June 2014, compared to the previous quarter, but this has yet to filter through to starts and agreements. However, whilst there were 1,778 publicly funded mediation starts, slightly up from 1,751 in the previous quarter, there was a significant year on year fall, with 2,706 mediation starts in the equivalent period in 2013.

Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, commented:

"While the introduction of compulsory MIAMs has made a small impact on the plummeting public mediation numbers, it has not yet been the panacea the Government hoped for. There is still a huge disparity between publicly and privately funded mediation, which we believe is a direct result of the cuts to family legal aid and consequent loss of solicitor referrals into mediation.

"Resolution is concerned that this shows that access to justice, and in particular ways for couples to resolve disputes out of court, are being denied to those who lack the means to pay for it.

"Since the cuts to legal aid, we've seen mediation numbers drop, while the numbers of people representing themselves have risen to a point where they are causing delays and serious problems in the courts. The April-June Court Statistics data from the Ministry of Justice shows that the average time for the disposal of a care or supervision application has dropped to just under 30 weeks, which is welcome news.

"However, this has not been the experience for other types of cases. A survey of Resolution members, conducted three months after the 22 April reforms were introduced, shows that there have been significant delays to cases in the family court. 45% of our members report that cases involving financial disputes, are taking longer, and 37% report the same for cases relating to arrangements for children.

"In addition, the lack of legal aid means fewer people are talking to solicitors about their separation, who would previously have signposted them towards mediation.

"We believe that the Government needs to allocate some of the £86m underspend in civil legal aid for initial legal advice for separating couples, so that people know what their options are and how they can access out-of-court solutions such as mediation. It's clear from these statistics that more needs to be done to prevent the creation of a two tier justice system, where those without the means to pay are left to fend for themselves."

Commenting on the moderate increase in family mediation, National Family Mediation (NFM) Chief Executive Jane Robey said:

"Data covering NFM affiliated services and mediators for the first six months of 2014 gives us reason to feel cautiously optimistic. It shows that in a number of areas increases of 30 to 40 per cent in the number of people attending mediation compared with the same period in 2013 are common. Our national helpline has been overwhelmed with enquiries in the same period.

"The key to successfully increasing the numbers of people converting from awareness meeting to starting full mediation is often getting them into the room in the first place, with minds that are open to the possibilities mediation offers them to shape their family's future in an affordable way."

Exceptional case funding applications:
There were 125 applications for exceptional case funding in the family category between April and June 2014. Of these seven were granted, 95 were refused, 20 rejected and three withdrawn.

The statistical release is here.