Family Law Blog

Legal Aid Cuts and Litigants in Person

24 October 2011, by Taylor King Family Law Solicitors

The government has proposed cuts of £350m from the legal aid budget which would exclude all private law children and family matters where there is no domestic violence.

Unveiling these reforms, justice secretary Ken Clarke stated that he wanted to “discourage people from resorting to lawyers whenever they face a problem” and instead promote the use of “alternative methods of dispute resolution which may be more effective and suitable”.

This proposition was subsequently criticised  by Lord Neuberger, Master of the Rolls, who said that saturating mediation and stretching it to beyond its capabilities risked depriving particular classes of person the right to equal and impartial justice.

Although the government plans to offset the cuts to legal aid by increasing the funds available for mediation, it does not take proper account of the negative effect on the courts and the reality that the majority of family cases are dealt with in the county courts. The dire state of the economy and the prospect of legal aid cuts has lead to an ever increasing number of litigants in person.

Indeed the Personal Support Unit (PSU) who give advice and support to litigants reported that cases were up 89% on 2010 in Manchester Civil Justice Centre with the courts merely being told to make “adjustments” to cope with this influx.

Concerns about the strain on the courts system provoke the mantra that ‘justice delayed is often justice denied’.

There has been a wrongly made assumption that members of the public are adequately equipped to deal with children’s cases and divorce-related financial applications. In reality many litigants in person are unable to cope with the legal procedures and presenting their case in a court environment, in front of a judge. Some have problems with literacy, particularly when English is not their first language. Often they are unable to organise their paperwork effectively which inevitably leads to delays. They are often emotionally evolved which clouds their judgement and are unable to deal objectively with the case.

A final hearing with regard to financial issues had to be re-listed because the litigant in person, who was the Respondent, lodged with the court their own bundle which included documents that should not have been seen by the judge. As a result there was a substantial delay in the case being concluded and additional costs for the other side.

A District Judge, at a recent hearing, commented to an Applicant that if a party to proceedings attended as a litigant in person they should know what they were doing. In reality, few are going to have the skills to conduct the proceedings as effectively as a lawyer.

At Taylor King we assist litigants in person on an ad hoc basis. For an agreed fix fee we can prepare documentation or attend hearings on their behalf.