So it has come to this. The country’s top judge going cap in hand for donations to a charity dedicated to helping unrepresented litigants navigate their way through the choppy waters of our courts system.
We used to have a system of legal aid that ensured, in theory at least, that every litigant in this country could obtain legal representation, irrespective of their means. Being rich did not put you at an advantage in legal proceedings, and being poor did not put you at a disadvantage. It was a level playing field for all. Not for nothing was legal aid known as the ‘fourth pillar of the welfare state’, alongside the NHS, universal education and social security.
But that pillar, and the equality of arms it created, was swept away in 2013, at least for private law family litigants, when the government abolished legal aid for most private law family matters, such as financial remedy proceedings following divorce, and proceedings concerning arrangements for children. The inevitable result has been a massive increase in the number of unrepresented litigants desperately seeking legal assistance, as they cannot afford legal representation. We now have a two-tier system: one for the better off, and one for the rest.
One of the ports of call for those unrepresented litigants is the Personal Support Unit, or PSU. The PSU is a charity which aims “to reduce the disadvantage of people facing the civil and family justice system without a lawyer, enabling them to access justice.” The PSU believes that no one should face court alone, and so it works to provide immediate support to everyone who seeks its assistance. It has around 700 dedicated non-lawyer volunteers, who operate from 23 courts in 18 different cities across England and Wales. They are the only organisation providing such a service.
And family cases are at the centre of the PSU’s work. In 2017/18 the PSU had 65,456 ‘client contacts’. 59% of those involved family cases, of which 80% concerned the welfare of children.
You can find out more about the PSU on its website, here.
And so to Lady Hale, who is, of course, the President of the Supreme Court, at least until Lord Reed succeeds her next January. In what to my knowledge is a first for anyone holding that position, she appeared on the BBC’s Radio 4 Appeal programme on Sunday, making an appeal for donations to the PSU (I should point out that Lady Hale is a patron of the PSU).
Lady Hale said that she knows how intimidating the civil and family courts can be for people without legal knowledge or help. People facing court alone, she said, must overcome barriers, legal jargon, and lack of advice. And when a case has life-changing outcomes (as many family cases do), such as losing your children, it’s no wonder the court experience becomes immensely stressful. She went on to point out that domestic abuse “figures in a staggering 70 to 90 per cent of all cases in the family court”, as was the case for ‘Sue’, whose experience of facing her abusive ex-husband in court without representation is given as an example of how the PSU can help.
Lady Hale concluded: “Everyone deserves access to justice, whether or not they can afford a lawyer.” I’m sure we all agree with that, but I still find it terribly depressing that the legal system in this country has reached the state where the country’s top judge has to ask for donations for a basic support service for litigants who until recently were provided with full legal representation. With all due respect to the PSU volunteers, does the service they provide amount to ‘access to justice’? I’m sure it is an excellent service, and extremely welcome to the PSU’s clients, but it is nothing like the service that used to be provided by legal aid, including advice and representation by fully qualified solicitors and barristers.
This, then, is the reality of our legal system in 2019.