Litigants in person numbers soar

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The dire state of the economy has already led to a dramatic increase in the number of litigants in person, new figures from a voluntary organisation suggest. This is before government cuts to civil legal aid come into effect, which many solicitors predict will trigger another huge rise.

The Personal Support Unit (PSU), whose volunteers work in courts to provide ‘practical and emotional support’ to litigants in person, has revealed caseload figures to the Gazette. They show a 19% increase in the eight months to 31 August in cases it supported in the Principal Registry of the Family Division, London’s main family court, compared with the previous year.

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Cases in the Manchester Civil Justice Centre were up 89% on 2010 in the four months to 30 September. And while the increase at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) was just 5% in the first eight months of this year, this followed a rise of 47% the previous year.

PSU volunteers assisted 6,760 clients with their cases in the accounting year 2010/11.

The unit’s director, Judith March, said: ‘In the family courts the increase is often recession-related, where clients have either been taken to court because they are unable to meet maintenance payments, or they have gone to court themselves to ask for maintenance payments to be reduced.’

March said budget cuts being absorbed by the courts service had removed many court staff who previously provided basic information to litigants in person: ‘At the RCJ there is an entire level of middle management that has been removed.’

The rise in the number of litigants in person is causing concerns about the extra strain placed on the courts system. Writing in the Gazette District Judge Peter Glover noted that the increased burden would inevitably be accompanied by ‘significant increases in delay for other court users’. District judges, he warned, are ‘nearing the limits of [their] capacity and inventiveness’.

Litigants in person sometimes achieve dramatic success. Georgina Blackwell (pictured)­, a 23-year-old Essex beautician, secured a High Court victory for her mother against housebuilder Bellway, represented by an eminent barrister, in 2009.

However, Blackwell was not the typical litigant in person helped by PSU. A quarter of PSU clients reported major health problems, often related to stress, anxiety or depression. Over half were from a black and minority ethnic group, and for one-third English was not their first language.

‘Many do not cope well with either the written or the spoken word. Many are unable properly to organise their paperwork,’ Glover said.

A Civil Justice Council working party will make recommendations to the justice secretary on access to justice for litigants in person by 31 October.

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