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8 September 2014

Family courts unfair for litigants in person, MPs told

Litigants in person are not getting fair hearings, the Common’s Justice Committee heard this morning, reports The Law Society Gazette.

The committee was taking evidence from Susan Jacklin QC, chair of the Family Law Bar Association, Dave Emmerson, co-chair of Resolution’s legal aid committee, Nicola Jones-King, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children and Jane Robey, director of National Family Mediation.

The justice committee is enquiring into the impact of the cuts to civil legal aid, introduced in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 last April, which removed public funding for most private law family cases.

Since the act, the number of people forced to represent themselves in court in family cases has increased dramatically, increasing the time taken to resolve disputes.

In cases since the cuts, where one party has been unrepresented, Jacklin told the committee: ‘Many young barristers felt the outcome was not fair for non-represented parties.’

While the barrister can put their client’s case, she said, however good the judge is at dealing with the litigant in person, it does not make up for the lack of representation.

Emmerson said the lack of research done in relation to the outcomes for litigants in person makes it difficult to quantify the effect.

But he highlighted the difficulties they face in relation to understanding the law, preparing their case and marshalling their information and arguments in court.

Although judges are trained in how to deal with them, it is still ‘unbelievably difficult’ to extract information from litigants in person, he said.

Any assistance given to unrepresented parties by the judge, the opponents, lawyer, law centre or others, Jones-King said, is just a ‘sticking plaster’, as parties are denied the strategic support provided a lawyer.

What is needed, said the lawyers, is legal advice to focus cases at an early stage.

Emmerson said resources also needed to be out in place to provide out of court settlements, which he said barristers and solicitors are keen to use.

The representative groups expressed concern about the growing trend of commercial McKenzie friends – unqualified, untrained and unregulated advisers who owe no professional duty to the court or the client, and the low number of cases that have been granted exceptional funding.

The representative groups expressed concern about the growing trend of commercial McKenzie friends – unqualified, untrained and unregulated advisers who owe no professional duty to the court or the client, and the low number of cases that have been granted exceptional funding.