Role of lawyers in family courts at risk

The role of lawyers in the family courts could be at risk under changes being considered by the Family Justice Review, Community Care has learned.

The role of lawyers in the family courts could be at risk under changes being considered by the Family Justice Review, Community Care has learned.

Family lawyers and children’s guardians have told Community Care anonymously they are concerned the review panel appears to be considering alternatives to court processes, including tribunals and mediation, in order to make savings.

Although no decisions or announcements have been made, one senior lawyer told Community Care that it appeared, “where possible the panel is looking for alternatives to court.”

He said the changes were most likely to affect private law cases, but also added, “nothing can be ruled out at this early stage.”

“We know £500m needs to be cut from the legal aid budget. Everything points to a major cost cutting exercise and lawyers won’t be immune. There is an agenda in some circles that lawyers and court hearings increase costs and make situations worse, but we have seen no evidence for this,” he said.

Children’s lawyers and guardians say that if such proposals were to go ahead it could limit access to justice for vulnerable children and families, as well as lawyers’ contracts.

One guardian said: “You can’t close the gateway to the courts without having a fundamental review of human rights. Children and families need access to independent legal advice.

“It increases their confidence in family justice, and helps professionals to uncover hidden issues, such as child protection concerns, which may not be immediately obvious. If decisions were made early in a case about whether it should proceed to court, there would be a risk of missing these issues.”

Another guardian told Community Care that tribunals were not always appropriate settings for complex cases. “Children need an independent lawyer and a guardian, working with them in tandem to represent their wishes and feelings. At a tribunal, with their parents present, children won’t always say their true feelings.”

Another guardian said that even if the changes only affected private law only, there would still be cause for concern. “Private law cases can be just as complicated as care proceedings.”

Another senior family lawyer told Community Care there was, “probably some scope for more cases to be diverted away from court than are currently” but said it would not be sensible to do this in all cases. The source also pointed out that solicitors already offer families a range of options, including therapy sessions and mediation, before considering a court hearing.

“In cases where the issue is contact the review panel will be asking whether it’s a good use of court time to use the courts and lawyers. But parents often instruct solicitors who decide the case should not proceed to court anyway. Generally the right cases go before the courts.”

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