ADVICE GUIDE: ‘The guide is designed to help people trying to represent themselves in court,’ explains immediate past chairman of the Bar Council Maura McGowan. ‘We want to make it less scary. We are trying to bridge the gap left by the removal of legal aid. It’s not a substitute. It is there to take some the terror out of going to court.’
If you are faced with going to court without a lawyer, then check out the Representing Yourself in Court guide which was written by the Bar Council. It’s now available in an online format on www.thejusticegap.com in the week that, as reported elsewhere on the site, almost half of the parties seen by magistrates in family courts (46%) were left to represent themselves without lawyers.
In the latest of a number of recent reports to focus on the problems faced by the courts owing to a new generation of unrepresented parties – or litigants in person – as a result of the legal cuts introduced last April under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism looked at the impact on magistrates in family courts.
- If you are faced with representing yourself in court and don’t have lawyer, check out the guide HERE. Thanks to the Bar Council for letting us use their guide. You can watch part of an interview with the immediate past chairman of the Bar Council Maura McGowan in the video above
- Thanks to Lucy Britt for building the advice guide site
- You can read about the research on www.thejusticegap.com in Maeve McClenaghan’s article HERE
The Bureau, in partnership with the Magistrates’ Association, surveyed a sample group of 461 magistrates sitting in a variety of courts across the country.
In relation to private family law, they found:
- Close to half (46%) of the parties seen by magistrates in the private family courts, were representing themselves
- The vast majority (97%) of magistrates that saw a party representing themselves, believed self-representation had a negative impact on the court’s work
- Almost two-thirds (62%) of magistrates said litigants in person had a negative impact on the court’s work most or all of the time
‘I feel there is often a miscarriage of justice. I know we and our legal adviser do our best but time is not on our side. An impossible two tier system has been created, those that have and those that don’t.’
Respondents to TBIJ survey
Judges last month reported that the increase in unrepresented litigants as a result of the LASPO cuts was putting ‘significant pressure on the courts and tribunals’ and even posed a security threat. ‘In short, the increase in LiPs has put significant pressure on the courts and tribunals,’ concluded the Judicial Executive Board, in a paper prepared for the Commons justice select committee.
In a section on security, the report noted that litigants in person ‘sometimes come to court with a group of friends and/or family for support’. ‘Tensions can run high between rival camps in the waiting area,’ it said. ‘Very occasionally there are significant outbreaks of violence.’
The Board reported that many LiPs had ‘little or no knowledge’ as to their rights, some had ‘learning difficulties, psychological or psychiatric problems and/or dysfunctional lifestyles’, and they tended to be ‘much more demanding of court staff’.
‘The impact of those conditions compounds an already fraught exercise in gaining access to justice.’
Judicial Executive Board
The Board stressed that ‘the apparent saving of cost by a reduction in the legal aid budget’ needed to be viewed ‘in context – often it simply leads to increased cost elsewhere in the court system as, for example, anecdotally cases take longer’.
It also reported that in the tribunals, ‘some 94% of the cases handled by the first-tier and upper tribunals’ had been taken out of scope for pre-proceedings legal aid. ‘Our impression is that the impact has been greatest in the areas of welfare benefits, non-detention immigration cases and employment,’ it noted.
The Judicial Executive Board stressed that litigants in person were not ‘a problem’. ‘The problem lies with aspects of the system that have not developed with a focus on unrepresented litigants and which are now faced with an unprecedented increase in their incidence,’ the report said.
Key Judicial Executive Board findings
- There had been a large increase in the number of cases ‘where one or both parties do not have legal representation – most prominently in private law family litigation’;
- Cases which may ‘never have been brought or been compromised at an early stage are now often fully contested requiring significantly more judicial involvement and causing consequential delays across the civil, family and tribunals justice systems’;
- The ‘absence of funding for crucial experts’ reports’ in private law family work in particular has had significant consequences;
- The absence of pre-proceedings advice in the tribunals’ jurisdictions has resulted in ‘an increase in unmeritorious claims and, almost certainly, some meritorious cases never being brought’; and
- Exceptional cases funding gave ’cause for concern’.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award