LEGAL aid cuts are increasing the stress of family breakdown and could potentially have tragic consequences, lawyers in the region have warned.

North-East solicitors say there has been a sharp drop in the number of people seeking help for family problems since legal aid was abolished for the majority of cases in April.

Lawyers believe many people are either not taking legal action to resolve problems or are attempting to navigate the legal system without professional help.

Legal aid can no longer be claimed for cases such as child custody and residency problems, or family finance issues such as divorce disputes – except in certain circumstances, for example where there has been domestic abuse.

Elspeth Thomson is a partner at David Gray Solicitors, in Newcastle, and a member of the Law Society family panel and the children panel.

She said the changes were having a big impact on the public, adding: “Fathers are losing contact with their children and children are losing that relationship with their father.”

She believed the changes had increased the likelihood of “inequality of arms” where one party had the resources for a legal representation while the other party was left to represent themselves.

In these cases, the party without solicitors may settle without going to court and miss out on what they were due - or simply not fight for their rights.

Tees Valley Law Society president Jonathan Woodhouse, a partner at Freers Solicitors, in Middlesbrough, said the changes were causing more conflict between family members, with children often losing out.

Without a “dispassionate person in the middle offering sound and calm advice” he feared there could ultimately be a tragedy.

“Damage can be done to people and property when people take the law into their own hands,” he added.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said it had made sure that family cases involving children at risk continued to qualify for funding.

“This means cases including care proceedings, the unlawful removal of a child, and child contact cases where there is a risk of child abuse or where domestic violence has been an issue will all generally be covered.

"Legal aid is paid for by taxpayers and resources are not limitless, especially in the current economic climate.”