Yesterday I attended a meeting at Liverpool County Court with advisers, lawyers and Senior Judiciary. This was all about the growing problem of how we can best assist Litigants in Person.
When the government announced its devastating cuts to Legal Aid in 2013 many of us predicted a massive growth in the number of those bringing or defending cases without any legal representation. In a report in 2011 the Civil Justice Council said –
‘It is a reality that those who cannot afford legal services and those for whom the state will not provide legal aid comprise the larger part of the population of England and Wales. Thus for most members of the public who become involved in legal proceedings they will have to represent themselves.’ Access to Justice for Litigants in Person 2011.
What this does not say is that such litigants will often be opposed by public bodies or insurers with very deep pockets to pay expensive legal fees. And the legal process is more than just a maze. It is a minefield.
These unrepresented litigants are increasingly dependant on help from court staff who themselves have seen cuts in funding and can, in any event, only do so much. The burden is also taken on by voluntary agencies. They do a stalwart job. One advice worker in Liverpool advises hundreds of people facing debt cases virtually on her own and with diminishing resources. I have said before that Access to Advice at this level is a waste land –
The government has deprived ordinary people of the right to funded legal advice and, at the same time, squeezed the life out of those other agencies that were able to help. There are many solicitors and barristers who will advise litigants without charge. But in a climate of heavily reduced fees and record closures of law firms, there is only so much that they can do.
The problem has recently been summed up by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas –
“…lawyers should not forget that in the present day litigation seems almost out of reach for those on modest incomes and many SMEs”.’
Lord Thomas hopes that a move towards fixed legal fees might improve the situation. Alongside this there is the move towards unbundled legal services whereby legal advice and help is provided at key stages throughout a case at a fixed charge –
I’m afraid that I do not share his optimism. For those on lowest incomes, including some who are very vulnerable even a fixed fee is way beyond their reach.
What we need is a firm commitment from politicians to a reinstatement of properly funded legal assistance to those in greatest need.
There is no point in having a justice system if people do not have access to that system regardless of wealth. This needs to be brought to the top of the agenda as we move towards a 2015 election.