The Civil Justice Council’s (CJC) long-awaited report into litigants in person has been broadly welcomed by the legal profession, although doubts remain over whether it will have any lasting impact.
The 94-page report Access for Justice for Litigants in Person addresses the need for a simpler, fairer and more efficient way for litigants in person to represent themselves in court without a lawyer.
Written by a collective which includes a QC and a High Court judge, the report offers support and suggestions for those unable to afford legal representation who are forced to navigate what can often be a complex legal maze.
The CJC study comes as the Ministry of Justice plans to axe £350m from the legal aid budget in 2013. According to the CJC this will result in an “increase in the number of self-represented litigants, who will be the rule rather than the exception”.
Speaking earlier this week at an event to mark the start of Pro Bono Week, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger praised the authors of the report for “making the best of a bad job”.
Pointing to the impending cuts to legal aid, Lord Neuberger said: “This is a timely and valuable report. It seems clear that there will be increases in the number of litigants in person wanting to use the courts and requiring practical assistance.
“The report produces a comprehensive overview of the issues likely to arise, and offers some ideas for how best those issues can be addressed given the financial context we are operating within.”
However, One Crown Office Row barrister Adam Wagner, author of Human Rights Blog, doubts that the CJC’s suggestions will carry much weight.
“The CJC provides an important blueprint for a fairer and better system,” he said. “It should be listened to, its recommendations taken seriously and, most importantly, funded. My fear is that there will be neither the will nor the money to carry out the transformation that the justice system really needs.”
That said, litigant in person Jeff Lampert, who co-runs the website help4lips.co.uk, welcomed the report, saying it was “about time” the issue was taken seriously.
“When you first start out it’s a frustrating and frightening process with many not knowing who to turn to for help and advice,” he said. “A website where people can readily get information is a welcome suggestion by the CJC.”
The CJC report also highlights the mounting pressures of managing caseloads that courts and tribunals will have to face as the number of self-represented litigants considerably rises.
“A consequence of this is that access to justice for other litigants, either in the same case or in the cases that are waiting to be heard, will be compromised,” the CIC study notes.
It adds that the British legal system is not designed with self-represented litigants in mind.
On the MoJ’s planned legal aid cuts the report takes the view that the most vulnerable in society will suffer.
“The proposed reductions are a matter of regret. This is because if the focus is on the individual citizen and not the lawyer their legal rights can be as important as their health, deserving of the same respect, and meriting equivalent support,” the report says.
“Even if all the recommendations we make are acted upon, this will not prevent the reality that in many situations, as a result of the reductions and changes in legal aid, there will be a denial of justice.”
Among the practical suggestions for helping litigants in person is the production of so-called ‘nut-shell’ type guides on various areas of law and the establishment of a website where people can find information about the court system and the law. However, the study also warns that technology can only go so far.
“While technology and improved written materials are essential, they’re not alone sufficient to achieve the support required. People are the most important resource for all self-represented litigants, but especially the most vulnerable.”
The report also cites that voluntary pro-bono work by lawyers will never be offered on a sufficient scale to balance the cuts in legal aid.
The full report can be read here.