It is fair to say that since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect in April 2013, the family court system has never been the same.
The Family Courts were never designed or established to be an ‘easy ride’ for emotional spouses or parents. Although some changes have been made to the procedure and terminology (i.e. changing from phrases such as “ex parte” to “without notice”) many aspects of the system remain difficult for non-lawyers to access, with the frequent use of legal jargon and references to the Family Procedure Rules making things extremely difficult to understand for those who are unrepresented.
In practice, we tend to see two schools of litigants in person – those who have had some form of representation previously and have since run out of funds, and those who have always represented themselves (some of whom might have been going to and from court for years and see themselves as semi-professional).
What impact does being a litigant in person have on family proceedings?
- Sometimes, court processes have to be lengthened to take into account the fact that one party isn’t represented. Judges have to be cautious about proceeding where there is a suggestion that a litigant in person does not understand what is required of them. This could mean that an individual hearing lasts longer or that the court adjourns a case to allow for extra time or a ‘second chance’ if someone didn’t understand what they had to do.
- Issues may not remain resolved. Although you may devote time and effort to securing a final order for the children, in the first instance there is nothing to prevent your ex-partner referring the matter back to court in the future. Without them taking proper legal advice, you may find that further court proceedings are started for trivial and unnecessary reasons; and where both parties seeking the help of a solicitor or mediator may have resolved matters out of court.
- The key issues can be missed. The judge is not there to give legal advice. A judge will make orders based on the information and evidence before them. There may be a particular legal argument that would support your case, or a piece of expert evidence which could have been obtained which would have added weight to your case.
- If only one party is represented, their legal costs can potentially increase. For example, a solicitor cannot advise the unrepresented person, but sometimes they have to prompt the litigant in person to take the necessary steps i.e. to file paperwork by a particular date.
- You may accidentally breach a court order. If no one is there to explain the complex wording of a court order to you, key deadlines might be missed. This may negatively affect the court’s ability to deal with your case; and may potentially result in your case being dismissed.
It is widely recognised that there is gaping hole in the legal system in terms of public funding (legal aid). Those who could previously obtain legal aid to pay for advice regarding their divorce or disputes regarding child arrangements may no longer meet the qualifying criteria for legal aid. If they cannot afford legal advice, a person can be left feeling that they do not know where to turn.
It is important to remember that there are still very limited circumstances in which you can qualify for legal aid, such as where domestic violence has been a factor in the relationship. If you think that you might qualify for legal aid, check your eligibility here.
If not, there are number charities which aim to assist those who do not qualify, such as:
A charity dedicated to help people prepare for cases in the civil and family courts. The volunteers are mainly students who will assist you to fill out relevant court forms, explain appeals processes and court etiquette and accompany you to hearings to take notes and provide moral support. The PSU national helpline is 0300 081 0006.
A national partnership working together to improve the experience of people facing the legal process alone by improving access to information, practical support, advice and representation. The contact number is: 020 7092 3973.
Here at Maguire Family Law, we do not deal with cases that are funded by legal aid. We can, however, discuss with you potential payment options such as litigation funding if you do not qualify for legal aid but need representation. Get in touch with us today on 01625 544650 or 0207 9474219