One phrase which is going to become familiar following the government's dismantling of access to justice is ‘litigants in person.’ These will be the claimants who bring their cases to court without any legal advice or representation. This group of litigants tends to have a poor reputation. In many cases this is justified. In the past there have been people who have seen a series of lawyers and been told that they have no viable case. They plough on regardless and can be a drain on the court system pursuing a case that is never going to win.
In fairness that is not always the case. There have been many occasions when litigants in person have shown great determination and succeeded where others might have failed. Erin Brokovich was so successful that they made her case into a movie which won Julia Roberts an Oscar!
These are the extremes.
The lack of access to legal advice is going to create a new dilemma; those claimants who are entirely reasonable and have very good claims but have nobody to guide them through the procedural maze of our courts. Jon Robins writing in the Guardian last year summed this up well –
‘The Kafkaesque workings of the English legal system can be enough to drive anyone round the bend.’
The dismantling of access is two pronged. There are swathing cuts to legal aid. But it is also going to be more difficult to pursue cases on a no win no fee basis.
In the absence of assistance the burden will fall on the courts themselves. The court administration will become bogged down as will the judges who estimate that a trial with unrepresented parties takes about twice as long as one involving lawyers. This is one reason why the cuts are a false economy. Any savings to the legal aid budget will be completely wiped out by the additional costs to the courts. And there will be other hidden costs which I mentioned on here last year –
But the cost is not entirely economic. There is also a huge social cost. For every claimant who decides to pursue a case in person there will probably be two more who will be deterred from doing anything because the whole thing is too stressful and intimidating. So we will then the erosion of justice itself.
The legislation imposing these cuts is now in force and its effects will begin in April 2013. But the politicians need to be consistently reminded of these costs. It may a long battle but they need to be reminded of the real cost.