How to help litigants in person without giving them legal aid for a lawyer

24 Oct

It should be noted at the outset that as many as 650,000 people were deprived of support by changes to legal aid, in most cases involving family disputes, welfare benefits, clinical negligence, employment, housing, debt, immigration and education. 

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It should be noted at the outset that as many as 650,000 people were deprived of support by changes to legal aid, in most cases involving family disputes, welfare benefits, clinical negligence, employment, housing, debt, immigration and education. 

I am delighted to share the news that the government has a cunning plan. In response to the “we told you sos” of lawyers, judges and court staff that has come about from the pressures on the court system that the sharp spike in litigants in person has caused, the Ministry of Justice has come up with an alternative to legal aid.

Instead of re-considering its decision to cut legal aid in its entirety (save for exceptional cases, e.g. in family cases where the applicant is in possession of a non-molestation order against the proposed respondent), the Ministry of Justice has put its weight (and £1.4 million per year) behind supporting the “Personal Support Unit,” which already provides advice in eight court centres in England and Wales.

The intention is to expand the number of advisers, the number of court centres served and to link applicants up with pro bon lawyers who can offer free legal support and in some cases court representation. The advisers for the new service will use court premises and are expected to come from a variety of backgrounds: law graduates, those still studying and retired volunteers with professional backgrounds.

The majority of support will not be based on providing legal advice, but rather it seems, moral support and guidance through the mechanics of the court process.

Whilst not for one moment criticising the generosity of those volunteers and pro bono lawyers that are stepping in to try and stem the meltdown of the court system, it does seem rather contradictory that the Ministry of Justice on the one hand acknowledges,  albeit tacitly, that the removal of legal aid has caused  multiple problems (cf: applicants unsure how to make the correct application, inequality of arms when one party is represented and the other is not, delays in the court system caused by protracted hearings due to parties not having the benefit of accurate legal advice etc.), but on the other hand is unwilling to do anything more than inject a relatively small amount of money into supporting non legally trained volunteers give moral support and basic guidance to litigants, and rely on the good will of the lawyers to represent litigants free of charge.

Those working at the Ministry of Justice would do well to ask themselves why lawyers who have lost a chunk of work in the removal of legal aid will be queuing up to represent people for free. 

Zosia Keniston

For more information on Family Law, click here.