The Observer, Saturday 29 March 2014 21.29 GMT
Lawyers protesting outside parliament against cuts to legal aid.
Couples disputing access and custody of their children now mostly have to represent themselves in court, and this causes lengthy delays in determining the best outcome for the children, they say.
The cuts are also having an impact on domestic abuse victims and women who have undergone forced marriages.
The legal aid reforms brought in exacting criteria for domestic abuse victims to qualify for help. For example, they might need a doctor's letter, typically costing £75. Legal experts questioned whether some women who wished to bring a case could afford this.
In addition, experts said, many men and women with literacy problems were attempting to negotiate complex legal processes without representation.
In one case, a mother who alleges she is a victim of domestic violence will soon confront her alleged abuser in court as they battle over access to their children.
Rachel Horman, a lawyer specialising in domestic abuse cases, said she had two clients who had been subjected to forced marriage but could not obtain divorces because their husbands were in Pakistan and they had no marriage certificates. As their husbands were abroad, the women no longer qualified for legal aid and, unable to afford lawyers or understand the legal process of applying for a divorce, they had been left in legal limbo.
A survey by Napo, the union representing family court staff, found a big rise in the number of cases where neither party had a solicitor acting for them, so were representing themselves as litigants-in-person.
Figures from Cafcass, the family court service, showed that in 42% of cases now coming before the family courts, neither party was represented by a lawyer, compared with 18% before the cuts.
Napo claimed that the family courts were now 10 times more likely to see two parents fighting for custody without legal representation than they were to see both with a solicitor. In many cases those involved simply gave up, Horman said. "They don't have the wherewithal to engage in the proceedings themselves, so they are just not doing anything. As a result they are not issuing proceedings."
Lawyers' representatives said use of solicitors in family courts generally led more clients to seek mediation. Because more parents were now pitted against one another, more cases were contested.
A briefing next week to MPs on the All Party Justice Group will claim that private custody proceedings are taking an average of six months to resolve – "a long time in a child's life".
Tests such as hair follicle sampling, to confirm whether a parent has an alcohol or drug problem, were proving too expensive for those without legal aid, which meant important evidence was no longer being commissioned by judges who determine access arrangements.
The Ministry of Justice said the reforms were necessary to stop the legal aid budget ballooning, but insisted that the vulnerable would not lose out.
Experts questioned whether the measures would save money. They believed the ministry had failed to appreciate the consequences of the cuts.
"The savage cuts to legal aid have had a disastrous impact on the justice system," said Harry Fletcher, an adviser to Napo. "Women and men are having to represent themselves, abused individuals are being cross-examined by their alleged abusers, and vulnerable children are suffering. The family courts system is facing meltdown."