Perfect storm brewing in family courts as rising numbers represent themselves

Rising numbers of litigants in person (LiPs) combined with increasing backlogs, delays and chronic lack of investment is creating a perfect storm in the family justice system.

New figures analysed by the Law Society* show that, in private family law cases, the areas worst hit are:

  • Central London – 2,691 cases without legal representation
  • East London – 2,313 cases
  • Essex and Suffolk – 2,051 cases
  • Manchester – 1,658 cases

Law Society of England and Wales president Nick Emmerson said: “Private family law cases where both parties are unrepresented have almost trebled** since the government brought in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which cut large areas from legal aid overnight.

Removing legal advice led to many more people going straight to court instead of seeking to resolve their cases through mediation.

“As the figures show, thousands of people are being forced to take on their case on their own, as they have no access to free legal advice. Means test eligibility has not been uprated for years, meaning people on lower incomes and sometimes those living in poverty, are unable to access justice.

“It is extremely concerning to see the rise in the number of people representing themselves in these kinds of cases.

“Family law cases are high stakes by their very nature. Cases deal with children being placed into care, domestic abuse victims or children finding out who they will live with as their parents’ divorce. Family solicitors are highly skilled and handle sensitive cases every day and can provide guidance and comfort to their clients.

“The rise in litigants in person is creating further pressure on a system already in crisis. Court desks – which are a key resource for face-to-face engagement, accessing information, engaging with relevant court staff and general support – are closing, removing essential visible access points for court users.

“Meanwhile, the family court system is facing rising backlogs and delays. Data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) shows that more than 100,000 children were trapped in the backlogs in 2023, leaving children without the stability they need to thrive.

Statistics*** also show that for children involved in private law proceedings, rates of depression are 60% higher and rates of anxiety are 30% higher than their peers in comparison groups.

“The UK government has made some strides to improving the family justice system by choosing to invest in an early legal advice pilot and pledging to introduce a new online information and guidance tool to support earlier resolution of family disputes. However, further action is needed to make our family law justice system fit for purpose.”

The Law Society is calling on the government to:

  • increase civil legal aid fees so that legal aid providers remain viable and people can access their right to legal advice
  • uprate civil legal aid means test eligibility so more people on lower incomes can access justice
  • increase fees for the Qualified Legal Representative (QLR) scheme – which was brought in to safeguard victims from being cross-examined by their alleged perpetrator – so more solicitors can take part

Nick Emmerson concluded: “We hope that these findings will encourage the government to ensure its Civil Legal Aid Review examines the effect decades of underinvestment is having on the family justice system and why so many people are representing themselves.”

Notes to editors

*Read Afzal Khan MP’s PQ on behalf of the Law Society on how many cases in private and family law involve litigants in person

**Data taken from Family Court Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2023. The figures have gone up from 14% where both parties are unrepresented in 2013 to 38% where both parties are unrepresented in October to December 2023.

***Statistics taken from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Naomi Jeffreys | 020 8049 3928 | Shanzeh Haque | 07706 989843

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS