It comes to something when the plight of the litigant in person in the family justice system resulting from the legal aid cuts makes a headline in a national newspaper. The reason for the headline was the findings of a report into the issue by Citizens Advice.
The report, entitled ‘Standing alone: going to the family court without a lawyer’ presents Citizens Advice research that reviews the challenges faced by litigants in person and the gaps in service left by the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters. The research explored what people’s experiences are, not only in court but before and after the case, to assess how well current services meet people’s needs.
The findings are pretty damning, and not all immediately obvious. As one would expect, the report finds that the majority of litigants in person find representing themselves difficult, time consuming and emotionally draining. Doing so also leads to worse outcomes compared with those who are represented by lawyers. But there is more: nine out of ten of them reported that the experience affected other aspects of their lives, particularly in four areas:
- Their mental and physical health suffered, and existing mental issues grew worse. Some reported physical effects include loss of appetite, sleepless nights and high blood pressure.
- The experience strained their working lives – the time taken preparing their case putting extra pressure on relationships with employers. This effect was particularly marked with self-employed people.
- Their finances were affected. Some lost working hours (or lost their jobs altogether). There was also the cost of attending court, and simple expenses such as printing documents, photocopying and postage for large bundles of documents.
- Relationships with friends and family were put under pressure, particularly when litigants in person turned to them for support.
The report identifies eight ways to improve the process of going to the family court without a lawyer:
- Litigants in person need a clear way to navigate through the court process. As things stand at present, many don’t know whether or not they have a good case that they should take to court, what alternatives there are to court and whether they are eligible for legal aid. The report also tells us that lack of clear direction has led to an increase in the number of people choosing not to resolve their family problems at all.
- Information should be easy to find, consistent, reliable and user-friendly. Without knowing where to go and what to look for, it can be difficult to know what information to trust. Information may be out of date, biased, incorrect or incomplete.
- Paperwork and processes should be designed with the layperson in mind. The right forms are difficult to find and too complex to complete. As the report says, submitting evidence that is relevant, clear and concise is a difficult skill which can take years of training and practice to develop.
- The physical court environment must help, not hinder, litigants in person. Many courts are austere and intimidating environments for anyone involved in a case, especially for those in violent, abusive or threatening situations.
- Litigants in person need the tools to cope with pre-trial negotiations, particularly when the other party has a lawyer. Effective pre-trial negotiation requires preparation, an understanding of the information a judge will want, knowledge of case law, realistic goals and a clear sense of what outcomes would be acceptable.
- Guidance for legal professionals needs universal adoption. The report found that good practice exists amongst lawyers, but is not consistent. For example, many lawyers still use old-fashioned and technical language. There are also of course particular problems for judges faced with cases in which neither party is represented.
- People need more information to make the most of lawyers’ services. Legal help may be available to litigants in person, for example pro bono or ‘unbundled’ services, where the litigant just pays for the lawyer to deal with one particular aspect of the case.
- Evidence requirements shouldn’t be a barrier to those eligible for legal aid: this is of course a reference to the evidence requirements for domestic violence victims who seek legal aid.
The report concludes with three key recommendations drawn from the above findings:
- Reliable advice and information should be provided by a trusted source, both online and in person.
- Court reforms should be a catalyst for making physical courts and court processes more user-friendly.
- Vulnerable people should receive the support they need to resolve their problems.
Of course, as I have said here before most of the effects of the legal aid cuts were completely foreseeable by the government, and therefore many of the issues referred to above should have been addressed before the cuts were implemented. Personally, whilst I hope that those in power heed the report’s findings, I don’t see any way that litigants in person can be provided with a level playing field, short of the re-introduction of legal aid. Sadly, that is not going to happen, but at least the plight of the litigant in person is being brought to the attention of the general public, many of whom will find themselves in that unenviable position at some time in their futures.
The full report can be read here.
Photo by Jere Keys via Flickr