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April 26, 2014

a piecemeal approach to the fall out from cutting legal aid?

The number of people involved in court or tribunal cases who don’t have a lawyer is rising steeply.  There have always been people who have represented themselves, some of whom could have afforded a lawyer or were eligible for legal aid but chose not to use a lawyer. But cuts to the eligibility for legal aid have flooded the courts with people acting alone, or with the help of a non lawyer “MacKenzie friend”.   Richard Moorhead and the intrigant in his fifteenth letter to the Lord Chancellor, have both blogged brilliantly about new developments, notably the publication of a Legal Services Consumer Panel report on MacKenzie friends who charge fees, and a Times article which suggested that Simon Hughes would like law students to help family court users who don’t have lawyers. Simon Hughes is apparently “looking at pilot studies in which students at university or law school would provide help to people going into court on their own. They would “talk through the issues, sort out the clutter in their mind””.  This suggestion inspired lots of flak on Twitter from lawyers, but did at least indicate that the government are thinking about how to help litigants in person (LiPs).  Overall though, the government response to a massive problem is underwhelming.  The Civil Justice Council, which is run by the Judiciary, have done a number of reports on litigants in person and the judiciary have produced a guide to help LiPs.  But the government seems to have no overarching strategy.  Simon Hughes has responsibility for family justice, but not the rest of civil justice.  So he appears to be exploring innovative, if controversial, ways of helping those who are acting without lawyers.  But if would make sense for the government to look at the problem as a whole, across the whole of civil justice, to research the needs of LiPs, and to fund services (web, telephone or face to face) which will provide quality help to the greatest number of people for the budget available.  Even more radically, maybe the government could adapt the way courts and tribunals work, to better meet the needs of litigants in person.