I have been told to write a blog. I do not really know what a blog is so bear with me while I simply rant on for 500 words about family law in 2015.
Back in the old days matrimonial finance wasn’t about dispute resolution and finding positive solutions. The emphasis was firmly on the dispute and not the resolution. As I stood in the soft light cast by those great frosted light fittings at Somerset House (the real Principal Registry), watching my pupil master flip a coin to decide if the husband or the wife was going to retain the leg-waxing kit (I kid you not), I thought: this is it, this is what matrimonial finance was all about.
From the punter’s point of view, the growth in settling rather than fighting should have been a good thing. Settling should be cheaper, quicker and hopefully less painful than fighting. However, the political drive to force parties into settling comes at a heavy price. Settling is only quick and cheap compared to litigation because the inadequacies of the court system mean that fighting a case takes an unreasonable amount of time and costs an unreasonable amount of money. For couples who have one house, two incomes, 2 children and a poxy pension it should not take a year and £60,000 to sort it out, but that now seems to be the norm.
Expenditure on the courts system or legal aid was not a headline in anyone’s manifesto. Whatever this government do, you can be pretty sure that they will not be increasing the headcount of judges, or increasing money to the courts service to reduce delays, or improving access to justice by reversing legal aid cuts. Anyone who wants their matrimonial dispute done and dusted within 6 months or less will have to invest in private mediation or arbitration to short circuit both the delay and the judicial lottery now provided by most courts.
The trajectory of this is clear: if anybody with enough money can get a quicker result from a more specialist judge at a fraction of the cost of litigating, then the courts will only be left with the small/no money cases with litigants in person. In fact this is already happening. In 2014 only 21% of cases in the family courts (excluding care proceedings) had both parties represented. The rest were either one party represented or both parties in person. The other consequence of this trend is that the prospect of becoming a District Judge gets less and less appealing, so the calibre of the judiciary will decline.
The court service should be a public service, it should not be privatised. You don’t have to be a raving leftie to think this. Of course the wealthy will always go to more expensive lawyers and access higher levels of judicial expertise, but there should still be a functioning and fair court service accessible to “normal” people. In 2013 the annual cost of running the courts service (including judges, buildings court staff AND Legal Aid) was the equivalent to running the NHS for only 9 days. That cost will have shrunk even further since the removal of legal aid for most private family law cases.
If you are interested, the Husband got the leg-waxing kit, and had to pay the Wife the £200 he said it was worth. Justice at its finest.