It’s a subject that I’ve written about on this blog many times over the last five years. The abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters back in 2013 has left huge numbers of litigants struggling to find legal help, and therefore at the mercy of those who peddle biased or incorrect advice. It was thus with considerable interest that I read a press release I received the other day from Birmingham City University.
The release told me that academics at Birmingham City University and the University of Leeds have launched a new research project that “will examine whether vulnerable people representing themselves in child court cases find themselves and their children put at risk by misinformed or biased online legal advice.” The project “will explore the quality, and types of advice handed out through legal advisors, online help forums or social media boards.”
As the press release said:
“Cuts to legal aid have seen a major rise in the number of those acting as their own representatives in court, with over 80 per cent of family court cases seeing a least one party representing themselves”
As a result, it went on:
“Without affordable face-to-face legal advice, many [litigants in person (‘LiPs’)] turn to online sources or McKenzie Friends – litigation friends who help LiPs represent themselves on a voluntary basis or for a fee. The legal community has raised serious concerns about the quality of information and advice provided online by McKenzie Friends or online forum facilitators.”
Indeed it has. Only this month we heard of a case in which the parents of a child the subject of an interim care order had received incorrect advice from a McKenzie friend to the effect that they were not forbidden from removing their daughter from this country.
I’m not saying that all online legal advice is bad. Some of it is very good. But much of it is not, and this is particularly a problem in the area of cases involving children, where the effects of bad advice can of course be extremely serious. And it is not just that the advice is poorly informed, as one may imagine if it comes from those who are not legally qualified. We see, in particular, advice that is clearly formed out of bias, for example against mothers, father, or even the family justice system itself. Any parent who is the victim of such advice is highly unlikely to achieve the result that they are seeking, and may find that the ultimate consequences for them and their family are utterly devastating. The press release says that the study “will examine the quality and accuracy of free legal support made available online, to see if children’s welfare is being put at risk by incorrect or biased information designed to further a prejudiced agenda.”
The study will look at both public and private law cases (public law being cases involving the state, i.e. care proceedings), and will look at the key words and search terms used by LiPs to seek advice online. Over 100,000 words will then be analysed based on questions asked by LiPs and the advice they are given. The analysis will focus on the type of information and advice LiPs are seeking, what communication strategies LiPs are using to describe the issues in their case, the quality of information and advice LiPs are provided with, the legal knowledge shown by LiPs and online forum facilitators, and the understanding of judicial processes and legal strategies shown by online forum facilitators.
The project has the admirable aim of producing
“clear guidance to help people avoid being given unreliable information and improve LiP’s awareness of the choices they have when seeking legal advice.” We are also told that: “It is hoped the project will spark a change in the quality of information and support available to LiPs online through more official channels.”
These are very ambitious aims. However, even if the project only makes a small difference in helping LiPs to get good advice, then that will be something.
You can find more information about the project here.