Whilst taking one of my regular looks at the Judiciary of England and Wales website yesterday, I noticed that they have published a guide to court proceedings for those without legal representation. Cunningly titled A Handbook for Litigants in Person, the guide has been written by six judges and gives an overview of the process involved in civil court proceedings. Apart from the PDF available to download from the website, a limited number of printed copies of the handbook have been distributed to courts and Law Centres.
“Access to justice is a right not a privilege. That right has in the vast majority of cases traditionally been exercised by members of the public through the services of a lawyer. Over the last ten years there has however been an increase in the number of individuals who have, for various reasons, pursued and defended claims on their own behalf: they have been and are litigants in person (or self-represented litigants). It is anticipated that in the years to come the number of litigants in person will increase and perhaps will do so sharply.”
One of the primary reasons, of course, for the increase in litigants in person is the cutting back of legal aid, which was virtually abolished for private law family proceedings (i.e. not involving a local authority) in April.
Lord Dyson goes on:
“In an environment where more individuals litigate on their own behalf it is incumbent on the judiciary, amongst others, to do what it can to help them navigate the civil justice system as effectively as they can. To that end this handbook … has been prepared…”
Now, I should emphasise that the handbook only covers civil claims. It does not cover family claims, although much of its content would also be helpful for those involved in family proceedings. Further, certain ‘family proceedings’, such as cohabitants’ property claims under the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996, are actually classified as civil proceedings and are therefore covered by the handbook.
However, whether the handbook is useful to you or not, it is an interesting development that the judiciary should go to the trouble of preparing it, when up until now most ‘official’ help for litigants in person consisted of nothing more substantial than a few leaflets available at court and online. I suppose I should say that the judiciary do, of course, have a vested interest in providing information to litigants in person – after all, they are the ones that have to spend much of their time explaining procedures to them in court.
Whether there is a similar handbook for litigants in person involved in family proceedings ‘in the pipeline’ I do not know, but certainly it would be most welcome. Preparing such a handbook and keeping it up to date would, however, be a substantial task.
There is, in fact, some help for those involved in family proceedings already available on the Judiciary website. They are developing a Family Court Guide. Although nothing like as ambitious or helpful as the handbook, the guide will provide links to legislation, court rules, documents, useful websites and other guidance. At present, the guide only covers public law proceedings (i.e. involving a local authority), but a section on private law proceedings is also underway.
There are, of course, many other sources of help available for litigants in person, including Citizens Advice, other websites such as GOV.UK, books, blogs and forums. And I couldn’t possibly end this post without mentioning Marilyn Stowe’s excellent source of advice Divorce and Splitting Up.
Photo by Mr T in DC via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence
John Bolch is family law commentato