Bar steps in to legal aid void with guide for litigants in person

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The Bar Council has published a jargon-busting guide to help litigants in person in the wake of the legal aid cuts that came into force yesterday.

The 74-page guide, put together by specialist bar associations, offers advice on finding free or affordable legal help, putting a case together, starting or defending a case and what to expect if a case goes to court.

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It includes specialist sections on areas of law including personal injury, employment, immigration, family, public law and judicial review, housing and bankruptcy and debt.

In the introduction, it explains: ‘Whether people use barristers’ services or not, we think we have a responsibility to explain and demystify the legal system to anyone who comes into contact with it.’

The guide tries to explain unfamiliar legal words and jargon and provides a glossary of terms at the end.

‘The law can be very complex at times, and it is important that you become as familiar as possible with the legal terminology because they are words you will hear and have to deal with throughout your case,’ it says.

The guide directs the public to providers of legal advice, including solicitors. While conceding that solicitors have traditionally been first port of call, it alerts readers to the services provided by more than 5,000 barristers who have undertaken public access training.

‘This can be more cost-effective than going to a solicitor, because you don’t have to pay for the running costs of a law firm. By going to a self-employed barrister, you will only be paying for the work you have asked to be done by the person you have chosen to do it.’

The guide also warns prospective litigants of the potential costs liability if they start a case and lose, saying: ‘It is extremely important to be aware at the outset that if you start any legal action against someone else, if you are unsuccessful, you might be liable to pay for their legal costs (whether you have a lawyer or not).

The legal aid changes made through the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which remove legal aid for huge areas of civil law, represent the biggest cuts to the system since it was introduced in 1949.

Bar chair Maura McGowan QC said that as a result of the ‘needless cuts’ which may ‘end up costing more than the government is ever likely to save’, more people than ever before will find themselves going to court without legal representation.

She said: ‘We are faced with a situation whereby access to justice is no longer being adequately funded and vulnerable people will suffer. That is wrong, but it would be equally wrong for the profession to stand by and do nothing.’

But she added: ‘That should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of the government’s position; it is because we genuinely believe that access to justice must be our primary consideration.

McGowan said the Bar Council had spent months designing an ‘accessible and clear’ guide to help people navigate the legal process. ‘It is a daunting and stressful process and we hope that this guide will go some way to making the courts seem a little more accessible,’ she said.

The Bar Council will be sending the guide to all MPs in England and Wales so they can help their constituents.

Read the guide.

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