Ruth Hawkins, of Turpin & Miller LLP 

AS a family law solicitor practicing for nearly 20 years, I have noticed a steady increase in people dealing with their family disputes themselves, without lawyers.

I am definitely not alone, and other lawyers up and down the country are finding the same, and the courts are also dealing with more and more litigants in person. And this is not just in family law. This is partly because of legal aid cuts and the cost of instructing lawyers privately, and partly because there is more information available on the internet and in social media. It is sometimes someone’s choice not to use a lawyer (for example, Christopher Halliwell currently chose to represent himself in a murder trial at Bristol Crown Court).

None of this is necessarily a bad thing, and a great number of disputes ought to be resolved without needing to involve lawyers or the courts. It’s one of the reasons I trained a few years ago as a mediator.

But sometimes this does lead to inequality in the law. In practice, I can think of numerous examples of one party being represented, sometimes not just by a lawyer, but by a whole team of lawyers, against one person acting for themselves. The Law Society (representing solicitors), The Bar Council (representing barristers) and CILEX (representing legal executives and paralegals) realised this was a growing issue, particularly in the aftermath of the legal aid cuts brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), and introduced joint guidelines for lawyers dealing with litigants in person on the other side.

In family law there are some options available to those people who are unable to obtain legal aid, and who are struggling to afford legal fees either fully or at all.

There are still some instances where legal aid is still available:

* For parents or people with parental responsibility in child protection matters, including care proceedings and local authority pre proceedings meetings (non means tested), and in child protection meetings and other related proceedings (adoption, applications for secure accommodation orders, applications to discharge or vary care orders etc.), where this is subject to means and merit testing;

* Means and merit tested applications in domestic abuse cases, child abduction cases, forced marriage cases, FGM Protection Orders;

* In private law disputes (child disputes, financial remedies on separation or divorce, etc) where there is recognised proof of domestic abuse or child protection concerns related to the other side, on a means and merit tested basis;

* Family mediation, where one party is financially eligible;

* Limited help in implementing agreements reached in mediation on a means and merit tested basis.