New help for separating couples in Sheffield in wake of legal aid cuts

Personal Support Unit, law student Beth Holt and Judge Graham Robinson
Personal Support Unit, law student Beth Holt and Judge Graham Robinson

Going through a divorce is one of life’s most-stressful – but unfortunately common – experiences.

The emotional roller-coaster of splitting up with a partner can be even worse when children are involved and a court date is needed to sort out disputes.

Personal Support Unit, Judge Graham Robinson

Personal Support Unit, Judge Graham Robinson

But following cuts in legal aid, a new Government service has been launched in Sheffield to help people going through difficult legal disputes.

The process of going through family and civil courts has become even more challenging in recent years following major changes to the legal aid system affecting who can qualify for support.

A recent National Audit Office report said that in 2013-14 there was a 30 per cent increase in the number of cases in family courts where neither party had legal representation.

More than 18,500 people across the country were involved in such cases in 12 months.

Personal Support Unit, volunteer student Beth Holt

Personal Support Unit, volunteer student Beth Holt

Since April 2013, a range of cases – including the majority of family, debt, housing, employment and social welfare cases – have no longer qualified for legal aid.

The NAO say the changes may eventually save around £300 million a year but raised concerns that the impact of the changes had not been properly thought through by the Ministry of Justice.

In response to the reforms, a new team based in the Sheffield Law Courts have been assisting people from the city since November.

The Personal Support Unit has assisted more than 400 people since the scheme started with both family and civil matters.

Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes

Its workers and volunteers do not provide legal advice but instead offer both practical help – such as assisting with form-filling – and emotional support, with volunteers sitting in hearings.

One of the aims of the service is to help separating couples agree resolutions together, preventing them having to go through the court process and saving the taxpayer money in the process.

The unit works in partnership with the law schools at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield, and both part-fund the project.

About 36 law students from both courses volunteer at the centre under supervision.

Personal Support Unit, law student Beth Holt and Judge Graham Robinson

Personal Support Unit, law student Beth Holt and Judge Graham Robinson

Around 12 courts around the country, mainly in London, already offer a similar support process – but Sheffield is the first court in the country to be selected for a share of £2m funding from the Ministry of Justice to extend the scheme.

Other courts are now being lined up to open similar units, with Nottingham next to be chosen.

Judge Graham Robinson said the unit is helping those who have to use the court system.

He said: “It is always stressful for anybody, whether they are represented or not, to come to court because something has obviously gone wrong.

“If you are on your own, the process must be very demanding.

“It is clear to me that these litigants who have somebody from the PSU with them are noticeably calmer and able to give their best.

“For whatever reason, in both family and civil cases there are more people than ever coming to court without representation.

“Anything that enables them to feel more at ease has to be a good thing.

“Just understanding the process and knowing what to expect must make things easier.

“Litigants in Sheffield are very lucky to have a PSU here.”

Jo Wardle, coordinator of the unit, said the team is expanding into the neighbouring Family Hearing Centre and expects its workload to double from the 130 cases it has each month.

She said people are grateful to have the free assistance to help guide them through what can be a difficult time.

“I think people are so relieved to have someone to talk to in the courts,” she said.

“It is someone willing to give them time and support.

“Some cases take years – it can be a long time.

“People don’t always understand the process. We help people understand and fill in the forms that a solicitor would charge a lot of money to do.”

She added: “The most important thing we do is the emotional support – that is what the claimants appreciate.”

Beth Holt, a Sheffield University law student who volunteers at the unit for around three days per month, said she enjoys being able to help people deal with the challenging court process.

She said: “I absolutely love it. It is the helping people, that is what I am interested in.

“People are quite emotionally charged.

“There is a lot of form filling which can be quite confusing if you don’t know the terminology and I’ve been a in a few hearings. People like having somebody there.”

FamilyJustice Minister Simon Hughes said there has been a ‘really positive response’ to the service from people who have used it in Sheffield.

He said it is hoped eventually every major court in England and Wales will operate a similar service.

Mr Hughes said the system is ‘turning the corner’ on reducing the number of people needing to go to court hearings in family disputes.

He said one element of this is requiring separating couples to attend mediation sessions to try to solve disputes about issues such as child access and division of assets.

Mr Hughes said feedback has shown seven out of 10 couples attending mediation sessions manage to come to agreements in principle by the end of their meeting.

He said: “That saves cost to the taxpayer and it saves stress on the families.

“If you can agree a plan for the house or the car or the children, then it is something you have signed up to. If you have a battle in court, you might not get the result either of you want.

“Every time we avoid people going to court on their own, we are saving the court money. Every day in court courts money, paying the judges and the staff.

“The hope is it will in the end save the courts money, We can save hours from court time – not to give people less justice but to try and make sure they get a better service from the courts at the start.”