Litigants in person in the family courts
Sir James Munby President of the Family Division writing the foreword to the latest edition of Lucy Reed’s ‘The Family Court without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person’ (LiPs), said in August 2017 the government’s support for litigants in person in the family courts has been “sadly inadequate” and the family justice system faced a “massive challenge” to ensure LiPs are given the help they need to navigate an “over-complicated ‘system’”.
He praised the Family Justice Council for providing user-friendly literature for LiPs, but said otherwise the work thus far undertaken by government – whether the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, or the Family Procedure Rule Committee – has been “sadly inadequate.” He said that the practices and procedures ( “largely inaccessible” and “unintelligible” to LiPs) are designed for a family justice system where the typical litigant has legal representation, whereas the reality is that, across vast swathes of the family justice system, the typical litigant now has no legal representation.
He concluded that over time these “serious blots” will be remedied, but given the “traditional snail’s pace of legal reform in this country”, for now, it is the voluntary sector and family lawyers such as the handbook’s author, Lucy Reed, that the family justice system must continue to look to.
This terrible state of affairs (not least the suggested source of support) means that huge numbers face going to the family court without a lawyer. If you’re not eligible for legal aid (see below) and can’t afford full representation read LINK for information about ‘unbundled’ legal services. Whatever your circumstances be better prepared by reading the handbook and using OnRecord to gather evidence and to help prepare a statement in support of your case.
When is legal aid available in family cases?
- Private family law matters (divorce, dissolution of civil partnership, property, finance and children matters) only where there is evidence of domestic violence or abuse or child abuse. Domestic violence or abuse covers psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse;
- If you’re a victim of domestic violence or are at risk of being a victim of abuse, need advice on your rights to stay in your home and need a court order to protect you;
- If you’re a victim of domestic violence or are at risk of being a victim of abuse and need advice on family matters such as divorce, financial disputes or disputes about children;
- If you need to protect a child who is at risk of abuse – for example, you need to apply to court to prevent someone who has abused a child from having contact with them;
- For family mediation;
- For family court proceedings if you are a child;
- If you need protection from being forced into marriage or because you have been forced into marriage;
- If the local authority is taking court proceedings to take your child into care;
- To stop children being removed from the UK or to get them returned if they have been unlawfully removed;
- To enforce European Union and international agreements about children and maintenance.
There are very strict rules about the proof that you have to show to qualify for legal aid in these cases.
This means of course that in all those cases where child arrangements can’t be agreed and there is no domestic violence or abuse or child abuse, you are on your own unless you can afford to pay or find help from the voluntary sector.
OnRecord is designed for these occasions and we have prepared some additional information LINK about this topic and some practical tips for using OnRecord in these situations.
Using the CAB and other voluntary agencies to help with a case in the family court if you’re a litigant in person
In their excellent report “Standing alone: going to the family court without a lawyer” LINK HERE published in 2016 the CAB authors make some suggestions about improving the plight of litigants in person and some recommendations.
The report identifies eight ways to improve the process of going to the family court alone and we believe our OnRecord app helps with 4 of them as follows:
- Information should be easy to find, consistent, reliable and user-friendly;
- Paperwork and processes should be designed with the layperson in mind;
- Litigants in person need the tools to cope with pre-trial negotiations and;
- People need more information to make the most of lawyers’ services;
The report makes three key recommendations about how courts, professionals and other service providers can address these challenges:
- Litigants in person need access to reliable advice and information to determine the validity of their case; investigate alternatives to court; progress their case through different stages; represent themselves effectively and deal with outcomes.
- Processes, physical courts and professionals’ behaviour should respond to the increased numbers of litigants in persons by ensuring best practice for working with laypeople is provided consistently.
- Support for vulnerable people should be more easily accessed. Victims of domestic abuse should be able to access the legal advice and representation to which they are entitled. Other vulnerable groups, such as people with mental health problems, should be signposted to appropriate services.
OnRecord will assist with these issues and help redress the finding that litigants in person are getting worse outcomes than represented parties in the family courts.