Resolution welcomes publication of MoJ report on litigants in person

News Release

28 Nov 2014

Resolution welcomes the long-delayed publication of the Litigants in Person in Private Family Law Cases report, which draws attention to the serious and ongoing problems faced by people navigating the family courts without legal support.

The report, released by the Ministry of Justice yesterday, highlights the very real difficulties litigants in person have in trying to make sense of the family courts on their own and the potential injustice and unfairness which results day by day. The recommendations include a call for initial legal advice to be made available for self-represented litigants.

Jo Edwards, chair of national family law organisation Resolution argues :

“The recommendation in the report for initial legal advice for litigants in person is something that Resolution has been arguing for for quite some time. The impact of the legal aid cuts in April 2013 was predicted by Resolution and our concerns have been confirmed. Our members see first-hand the problems faced by litigants in person, who enter the courts without a full understanding of their legal position, court procedures or how to present evidence, leading to emotional and acrimonious proceedings and sometimes unfair outcomes for them and for their families. Some, as the report identifies, are vulnerable and are simply not capable of participating effectively in the family justice system, no matter how many modifications are made to the court process. It is a travesty that these people are expected to enter into a process, with enormous ramifications for their lives, without proper support.”

Jo Edwards continues: “As well as the problems facing vulnerable applicants, the lack of legal signposting and advice means that far fewer people are entering mediation and other beneficial processes that help to resolve matters quickly, after the loss of family solicitors as the major referral point. Publicly-funded mediation numbers have dropped 45% over two years, despite the Government’s stated objective of diverting more separating couples into mediation.”

The Litigants in Person in Private Family Law Cases report has been released in the same week as a Ministry of Justice statistical bulletin, which claims the duration of private law hearings in which neither party has legal representation has actually gone down in comparison to cases in which both parties have lawyers. These findings, based on average rather than actual hearing times, directly contradict the experience of Resolution members working in the family courts. A recent nationwide survey of Resolution lawyers found that almost 70% said when they act for a party in family proceedings where one or more of the other parties is a litigant in person, family court resources have to be diverted, and 80% of respondents to our survey said that the legal costs of the represented party increase when one or more litigants in person are involved in a case.

Jo Edwards comments: “Resolution members working in the family courts see every day the issues outlined in the report. For us, and for everyone who cares about justice in the family courts, the huge increase in self-represented litigants is a serious concern. Resolution is publishing an updated good practice guide to working with litigants in person next week, and will be running training for family work professionals on how to minimise conflict and work effectively in cases where the other party is unrepresented. But this, and other initiatives being pursued by the MoJ and HMCTS to simplify the court process for litigants in person, is no substitute for proper, timely legal advice, which is far more likely to result in early settlement of cases”.

She adds: “As this report shows, the issue of people representing themselves in the family courts is serious, with huge implications for the family justice system and for families themselves. The unspoken issue is, how do we know how many people are simply giving up and not pursuing their financial claims or time with their children following separation? We hope the Government takes swift action on the report’s findings and acts to give litigants in person the support they need; whilst heeding calls, most recently in the House of Lords this week, to undertake a thorough impact assessment of the legal aid cuts.”

Numbers of self-represented litigants have increased hugely since April 2012 with the family legal aid cuts introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Cafcass estimates that up to 19,000 more parents appeared in civil courts with no lawyer in cases about children in the year after legal aid cuts.