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Family Law Litigant in Person: Family Justice Council Releases Guide

Cuts to legal aid provision have led to an increasing number of people appearing as a family law litigant in person, particularly in divorce cases. The Family Justice Council have released a new guide, titled “Sorting Out Finances on Divorce” to help a family law litigant in person navigate the complicated issues involved.

The guide can be freely downloaded from either the government or judiciary websites.  It provides a complete guide for those who are going through the divorce but are unable to afford the advice and support of a legal professional. It provides a complete map for the process at every stage. It aims to help divorcing couples resolve their differences without resorting to the courts, but also provides valuable help and guidance should this not prove possible and the matter ends up in court.

The new guide is very detailed and comprehensive, but at the same time it has been designed specifically to be accessible to members of the public without any specialist legal background. As such, according to Phillip Marshall QC, it does not include “unnecessary ‘legalese’” in order to help people going through divorce to “really understand the process the judges adopt without worrying about terminology.

Significant and wide-ranging cuts to the availability of legal aid have earned the government much criticism both from within and outside the legal industry. Family courts in particular, and divorce cases especially, have seen the number of people appearing as litigants in person rise rapidly because many individuals can no longer access legal aid and cannot afford professional legal support without it.

Improving support for these litigants in person is one of the government’s tactics in attempting to fill the hole left by legal aid and ensure that justice is still served. Not all are in agreement that such measures are sufficient, however, with major family law organisation Resolution describing this support as “a sticking plaster for a family justice system left seriously wounded.” The government has also been encouraging divorcing couples to try to avoid taking their cases to the courts by instead exploring other dispute resolution channels. Mediation, in particular, has been championed by the government as a viable, more amicable, and more affordable alternative to courtroom battles.

The new guide was produced by the government following a recommendation made in a 2014 report by the Law Commission. This report, titled “Matrimonial Property, Needs and Agreements,” urged the government to introduce new and better guidance for the public on the financial matters involved in divorce.

The chair of the Family Justice Council, and President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby said that the objective of the new guide is “to achieve a result which reflects the best possible outcome for each family. In this context, the guide provides a general overview of the law, as well as a detailed explanation of particular issues which are likely to arise, such as maintenance, housing and pensions.”

Whilst the new guide is very helpful in many respects for litigants in person, particularly when financial resources are often strained, it is worth remembering that no two cases are ever the same and every family has a unique history and financial needs.  What may be the right outcome for one family, may not be the best outcome for another family.  In my experience, it is often cases where the assets are more modest that the parties find it the most difficult to navigate the tricky task of dividing up the family assets.  Whilst the new guide helps to demystify the Court process and is a valuable resource for families it is nevertheless worth considering how an expert in the field of family law and tailored personal advice can work best for you to obtain the optimal outcome.

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