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Norgrove prepares family justice system for the post-cuts world

4 April 2011

David Norgrove, whose interim report on the family justice system was published last week, has said he anticipated that legal aid would be restricted for private law cases.

The justice select committee has called on the government not to implement cuts to family legal aid until Norgrove’s final report is ready later this year (see solicitorsjournal.com, 30 March 2011).

Launching his interim report, Norgrove said the panel had not heard evidence on legal aid and could not give a “strong” view one way or the other.

However, he said his proposals aimed to “divert people away from court” and “make it easier for litigants in person”.

Norgrove said the panel would have made some of its recommendations whether or not there were any changes to legal aid, but, if there were changes, it would make them “more useful”.

The report warns that the reduction in scope of legal aid “may result in greater numbers of people representing themselves, or litigants in person.

“Such people often have limited expertise and need greater support from the court during their proceedings, which may lead to longer cases.”

The panel said it was concerned by the ability of litigants in person to conduct their cases effectively and by the “inevitable increased burden in terms of time and resources” this would put on the courts.

“We are also concerned that some parents will simply not pursue their dispute leading to some children losing contact with a parent.”

The panel suggested that, in the longer term, responsibility for family legal aid should be transferred to a newly created Family Justice Service.

At a press conference at the MoJ, Norgrove made it clear that the introduction of compulsory mediation awareness sessions for divorcing couples, which come into force tomorrow (6 April), was only a start.

The interim report suggests a whole series of what he described as “positive steps” to make it more difficult for people to go to court.

After they were assessed by a mediator, couples would have to attend a ‘separated parents information programme’, including a description of the court process and its likely cost.

They would then attend mediation sessions or another form of dispute resolution such as collaborative law.

Only in cases where parents were unable to agree about a specific aspect of a parenting agreement or where an exemption was agreed by a professional would they be able to apply to court.

“There is a need for more solicitors to train as mediators and raise their standards,” Norgrove said. “It’s not something that can be done as a sideline to your main legal practice.”

He described the family justice system as a “system that isn’t a system” made up of a series of “quite disparate organisations” which often took decisions without thinking of the consequences for other departments.

“It is striking how very, very poor or often non-existent information is about how the system works.”

Norgrove said he had a photograph of one court’s IT system, which consisted of supermarket trolleys wheeling paper files around.

He said the creation of a unified Family Justice Service, with a chief executive, backed by a family justice board, would lead to a “more coherent approach”.

He added that his final report would be published in the autumn, probably in October.

A spokeswoman for Resolution said the report’s emphasis on encouraging couples to consider alternatives to litigation was “potentially very positive”.

She went on: “As the report seems to acknowledge, it will be important to ensure that mediation is not seen as a panacea for all couples and that other non-court options such as collaborative law are also promoted.”

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