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April 9, 2016

Standing alone – the experience of unrepresented litigants

“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least…” This quote from Dickens’ Bleak House refers to a fictional nineteenth century court case.  But the experience of litigants in person (LiPs) today too often resembles this.  People who are represented by lawyers often find the court experience bewildering and alienating, as the recently published Inside Crown Court illustrates.  Those who don’t have a lawyer find the court experience particularly stressful and difficult. Standing Alone, is a new Citizens Advice report on unrepresented litigants in the family courts. Despite huge efforts made to help LiPs, it shows that there is a long way to go to make the legal process easy and smooth.  Most people represented themselves because they couldn’t afford a lawyer, but one in five represented themselves without even knowing whether they were eligible for legal aid. Some fall before the first hurdle – so daunting is the prospect that many people would rather leave a family issue unresolved than go to law.

Those who do decide to, or have to,  represent themselves have no idea where to get help. A domestic abuse victim said:“well, really, there are only two options. There are law books in the library, or you Google it.”  The information on the net, particularly on internet chat forums, is not necessarily reliable. So brave LiPs resorted to going to libraries to read law texts, but “It’s mostly written in legal terms, and half Latin and whatever else. I’ve never been in court in my life before. I’ve never had to deal with anything legal, and it was just like a different language to me.” (Oliver, trying to get custody of his son). People struggle to find the right court forms and to fill them in correctly – “The government’s online form finder is not intuitive and court staff are not able to advise as this is considered legal advice”. So difficult are the forms to get right that in September 2015 18.5% of all divorce petitions filed in one area were returned for correction.

Judges and lawyers do their best to adapt to LiPs but the report suggests that practice is inconsistent with judges being more or less inquisitorial and many lawyers struggling to both represent their own client and to help create a level playing field for an unrepresented litigant.

Altogether, though it cites some great support schemes, the report makes depressing reading. Depressing partly because people clearly still have such difficulty getting justice.  Depressing also because it suggests that only radical reform of the system can make it fit for unrepresented litigants. And I’m not sure that is on the cards.