Why LASPO is like Spanx

Most women in their midlife years have heard of Spanx. For the rest of the population who don’t know, Spanx is the brand name of a range of undergarments that are specially designed to squeeze and shape you.

The problem is one of displacement of mass. Newton’s Third Law of physics, commonly known as ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’, tells us that we can’t use Spanx without repercussions. I’m sure there’s another law named after another eminent scientist that says ‘In a contained body, mass moved from one location will appear in another’ – but I can’t put my finger on it just now.

So you can squeeze and tighten, but unsightly bulges will appear in other places. Viewed face on in a mirror, these bulges might be near invisible, but other angles are less forgiving, and the consequence is the opposite of the gorgeous sleekness that was intended.

I considered this as I read the latest of many reports about the recent steep decline in the number of people using mediation for separation and divorce since the implementation of the cuts that came in with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). The Government’s own figures were that 623,000 of the one million people who benefit from Legal Aid every year will be denied access to this aid.

We now have more evidence for the suspicion that a combination of a) cutting legal aid to pay lawyers for advice on these cases and b) requiring a party who wants to file for divorce to attend a compulsory mediation information session equals fewer people actually using mediation for these cases and more continuing to use the courts. Yet the policies implementing these changes were intended to have the opposite effect – to move cases out of the courts increase the number of cases resolved by mediation.

A Freedom of Information Act request by a firm named Lawyer Supported Mediation uncovered startling stats for the six months from April 2013 (the start of the restrictions on legal aid) to October 2013. In the 12 months before LASPO D-Day in April 2013, lawyers made more than 62,000 referrals to publicly funded family mediation. In the 6 months after D-Day, they found just 20 incidents of lawyers using public funding for family mediation. That’s out of more than 82,000 family claims made in England and Wales in that period. So the picture isn’t one of more happy families and fewer separations, it’s one of more claims lodged in court by people in the midst of one of the most stressful events of life.

Why has it had that effect? Distasteful as the truth may be to some (including some of my fellow mediators), lawyers play a crucial role in making family mediation successful. Not in every case, and (dare I say) not every lawyer, and not by sitting in the mediation meeting with their client. But the gatekeeping role played by legal advisers is crucial for parties who are asked to consider a little-known and unfamiliar process, one with (let’s admit) some reputational issues, to resolve disputes that have significant and lifelong implications for the parties. Family disputes are often laced with fear – fear of the ex-partner, fear of conflict, fear of the effect on children and wider family members, fear of losing one’s home, fear of agreeing to less than you deserve. For women in particular there is often the charged dynamic of wanting to avoid conflict and worrying about pressure to agree to less than you are entitled to.

Legal aid is available for what is called “Help with mediation claims”, but its availability is not well known. It is a one-off fee of £150 for advice on mediation – not a sum most of us would sneeze at, but when you consider that a) this only kicks in after the lawyer has had an in-depth discussion with the client in order to identify if mediation is an option and b) more such discussions will be needed before a settlement is tied up in lovely ribbons, it doesn’t work out to be a sustainable income stream.

Mediation as a lawyer-free zone just won’t work in family cases (and probably in many other contexts too). In order to make informed decisions – whether to attempt mediation, what to propose in mediation, what to agree to in a settlement – many parties need legal advice. Mediation is an untried and untested process for most people –no wonder they feel reluctant to stake their future, and possibly that of their children, on it without some trusted guidance.

We know that the judiciary is concerned at seeing more people using the courts for unnecessary claims, floundering to get to grips with the legal system on their own. Lord Neuberger, who has been outspoken about the damaging effects of the legal aid cuts, said in an interview last spring:

“…if you start cutting legal aid you start cutting people off from justice … affecting their rights. And that’s dangerous. You either have people who are very angry with government and lose trust in the government … or you get them taking the law into their own hands.” 

Litigants in person aren’t themselves the problem; the problem is a system that isn’t easily navigable to ordinary citizens. The challenges created by an increase in these litigants are set out clearly in the report of the Judicial Working Group on Litigants in Person (July 2013). The report highlights the problems faced by unrepresented legal parties in understanding and complying with court procedures, understanding rules of evidence, presenting their case articulately, focusing in the issues and judging the merit of their case. Managing cases where one party is represented and the other is not poses particular challenges, not least allegations of bias if the judge leans too far in helping a struggling litigant.

The Working Group also noted that unrepresented parties are not more likely to embrace mediation:

They can be guarded against the notion of settlement or mediation, believing that any discussion prior to coming to a substantive hearing might be perceived as a sign of weakness, or simply because they wish to ‘have their day in court’.”

At best, people might find a way to reach constructive agreements themselves; or they might drop claims without merit or even manage to pursue a claim successfully in court on their own. At worst (and more so as court fees rise and tribunal fees take effect), simmering and unresolved conflict will burst out in other ways – in mental health problems, in violence, in unemployment. A case in Essex last October that resulted in courtroom rage is but one example.

More claims brought by litigants in person are just some of the unsightly bulges starting to appear as the result of the LASPO Spanx squeeze. Keep an eye out for more.