I can still remember the first time I appeared in court to represent a client. It was the Dartford Juvenile Court and I was representing one of two co-defendants. I was a bundle of nerves and everything I had learned on the advocacy training course I had recently attended seemed to slip from my mind. Luckily, however, the solicitor representing the other co-defendant addressed the court first and when it came to my turn I was basically able to stand up and say: “What she said!” Despite this, the events of that day are still etched on my memory.
Why am I telling you this? Well, I recalled the memory in an attempt to understand what it must be like for a non-lawyer to represent themselves in court for the first time. Of course, the experience for them is far worse than it was for me – they don’t have the benefit of four years study of the law and two years training, for a start. But in addition to that they have the knowledge that whatever transpires in court will affect them personally. There is also the emotional element of it all, particularly in family matters.
No, I don’t think I can ever really put myself in the shoes of a litigant in person. All I can say is that it must be an extremely stressful, confusing and sometimes frightening experience, during which you are, quite literally, unlikely to do yourself justice.
And yet that is precisely the experience we are now forcing upon thousands of people every day, thanks to the virtual abolition of legal aid for private law family matters.
Hardly a week seems to pass without news of the terrible effects of those legal aid reforms. Only yesterday a story appeared in the national press telling us that figures from the Ministry of Justice indicate that stay-at-home mothers and those working part-time have been hit hardest by the reforms, with the number of mothers having to represent themselves in children disputes having risen by two-thirds since the reforms were implemented in April last year.
Of course, there is nothing remotely surprising in such figures. Because of their relatively lower incomes there were always more mothers in receipt of legal aid than fathers. These people now belong to a legal under-class, who are only entitled to a second-rate legal system.
The courts will try to help them out, of course, but there is only so much that judges can do – court time is limited, and they obviously can’t take sides. The litigant in person has to fend for themselves in that alien environment, and is more than likely going to fail to put their case as well as they should, primarily because they don’t know what is relevant to the proceedings and what is not relevant.
The end result of all of this is that litigants in person are likely to get worse outcomes than represented parties, a fact that would be obvious to most, but seems to have been conveniently forgotten by those in government. That, and the stress that they are put though, is the reality of representing themselves in court.
Photo by Mr T in DC via Flickr