Rules implemented last year require divorcing couples to enter arbitration before heading to court, but solicitors have expressed concern that the guidelines are not being followed. As government cuts to legal aid threaten to deprive many prospective litigants of access to justice, some people are electing to represent themselves in the courtroom to save money. DIY divorces may be popular in some parts of England, but finding an affordable family solicitor in Exeter and, indeed, elsewhere, provides complainants with the best opportunity to reach a favourable settlement in or out of court.
Having been made law in 2011, rules requiring divorcing couples to mediate were intended to reduce the costs associated with litigation by settling divorce cases early. Few people would argue that the new guidelines are not a positive step forward in so far as they promote mediation above litigation, but there is a danger that the changes will merely reinforce a two-tier system of justice as cutbacks to legal aid are implemented.
Divorcing couples are already showing a reluctance to enter arbitration due to financial concerns, so the situation is likely to worsen as more people are denied legal aid in family law cases. The Government intends to cut spending on legal aid by £350 million a year, meaning that free advice and legal representation will not be provided for the majority of applicants. Wealthy litigants will be able to afford the best representation, but impecunious couples are set to struggle. It is likely that many will resort to representing themselves in a bid to secure justice.
Mediation does offer a faster, cheaper way to settle a divorce than thrashing out details in the courtroom, but couples who cannot afford this may also be representing themselves, so the arbitration system only saves money for litigants who have funds in the first place.
The role of family law solicitors in divorce proceedings ought not to be underestimated. Advising clients at every stage of litigation, solicitors will even brief barristers ahead of court appearances. Professional legal representation provides litigants with access the resources they need in order to obtain the best possible divorce settlement. Self-representation, on the other hand, provides complainants with an extraordinarily easy opportunity to make significant mistakes. There is no substitute for professional legal representation.
DIY divorces may be on the rise as a result of financial pressure, but affordable family law solicitors can still be found. Money can be saved on divorces by entering the arbitration system, but no penny is worth sparing if litigants are required to go to court without professional representation.