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Doubts Raised Regarding New Litigant in Person Initiative

Doubts Raised Regarding New Litigant in Person Initiative

Gingerbread, a national charity working with single-parent families, has released a study showing that 78% of litigants in person, who do not have lawyers to argue for them, found it “difficult” or “very difficult” to represent themselves in court. A spokeswoman for the organisation said that “Ultimately, parents are finding themselves stranded without access to the legal protection they need for themselves and their children”.

Since April 2013, when cuts in legal aid came into effect in England and Wales, thousands more people have appeared in civil cases as litigants in person, particularly in child custody disputes; new figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show that between April and June this year, fewer than 38% of parties in such cases were represented in court by a lawyer.

MoJ to fund Personal Support Units

Now though, an initiative providing support for unrepresented litigants in civil and family law cases is to be expanded to cover the whole country. The scheme, launched earlier in the week by family justice minister Simon Hughes, consists of a network of in-court advice centres funded by the MoJ, and comes in response to a surge in the number of litigants in person.

The MoJ will provide an initial £600,000 to fund the costs of setting up the scheme, and will then pay a further £1.4m annually to back the work of the Personal Support Unit (PSU), which already provides advice in eight court centres in England and Wales, assisting more than 1,200 litigants a month.

Judith March, director of the PSU, describes the service as “relatively inexpensive” to run – it is part-funded by law schools and the legal profession, and is able to count on volunteers with legal expertise who, she says, can “sit next to people in court…assisting them to make their main points”.

Other measures will include the creation of extra LawWorks clinics, which will work with local legal professions and advice agencies to offer initial legal advice, while guidance will be made available to local centres from RCJ Advice. A telephone and an online advice service will be provided with the assistance of Cafcass.

Each court centre will have a named person to manage the new service, and an appointed judge in each centre will have particular responsibility for litigants in person.

Simon Hughes said “There’s unlikely to be money coming back into legal aid in the near future. But people in the legal profession said they thought they could put together a package that would give support to litigants in person”. Similarly, Mike Napier, a former president of the Law Society, called it “an important funding initiative”.

Proposals amount to “a sticking plaster”

However, Nigel Shepherd, vice chair of family law membership body Resolution, described the initiative as little more than a “sticking plaster” for a wounded family justice system, which “will not address the wider issues stemming from the loss of legal aid”.

He went on to add that “solicitor negotiation and referrals to mediation and other forms of out of court dispute resolution are hugely successful in helping many people to resolve their differences more effectively, and with a minimum of conflict.

“What people need is access to professional legal advice early in their separation and during the process, to talk through their options, signpost to support services and find the right way forward for them”.

Amanda Melton, partner and head of the family and matrimonial team, also expressed doubts on the new proposals: “it hardly helps unrepresented people to replace proper legal advice from lawyers with ‘advice’ from trainees and retired people. What insurance will they have if and inevitably when things go wrong?”

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