A few weeks ago, I got chatting to a woman in my local pub – let’s call her Susan – who is embroiled in a legal battle in the family courts. Having spent more than £50,000 in legal fees, she is now acting as a litigant in person, and her experience gives a glimpse of how family justice looks from this perspective.
The legal issue involves Susan’s young grandson; and of course, I only got to hear her side of the story. The boy’s father has recently served a prison sentence for extreme domestic violence against Susan’s daughter; he is also – she claims – a drug dealer. Despite driving a flashy motor, he is funded by legal aid, and the state also pays for his accommodation; something that irks Susan and her family considerably.
On behalf of her daughter, Susan is seeking to prevent the father from having contact with his child. She does not believe that contact with this man is in the child’s best interests, and she sees the father’s legal action as an attempt to continue to intimidate and upset her daughter, rather than a genuine desire to have a relationship with the child.
At the moment, the boy must be taken to a contact centre every week to meet with his father – which Susan does on behalf of her daughter, so that she does not have to encounter her former abuser. But the child often refuses to go in, kicking and screaming. Susan has been told by the judge that she will be held in contempt of court if she cannot get him in there.
The father is currently studying a law degree, and is clearly making a case that he has turned his life around since his conviction. But Susan believes he is now abusing his current partner and has resumed dealing drugs.
The battle over contact has been going on for some time, and the costs have racked up. Despite the domestic violence aspect, her daughter’s relatively low salary put her above the legal aid threshold, so Susan has funded the proceedings for her. She says she has been paying a barrister £500 an hour to act for her in court – but with so much waiting time, the last occasion that she used him cost her £2,000 to have the lawyer speak for 20 minutes; something that she understandably finds frustrating.
The phenomenal costs have now led Susan to ditch all legal representation and act for herself in court. She is a confident person, and knows the facts of the case inside out and backwards – better, she feels, than any legal adviser ever would - but of course she has little idea of court etiquette. When raising the issue of the father’s alleged drug dealing, for example, she says she had to learn that instead of accusing him outright, she had to first ask him whether he had ever taken drugs – which he hadn’t – and then ask about the presence of scales at his home when he was arrested.
Because of her ignorance of how the court works, Susan has felt herself ridiculed by barristers in the courtroom, and felt offended by some of their remarks. But she does seem to feel that she was dealt with respectfully by the judge, who took a reasonably firm hand with one of the offending barristers.
Where one of the other professionals involved failed to give a recommendation either way on contact, the judge told them to stop sitting on the fence, to leave the room and come back in with a definite answer either way. They returned and said ‘contact’. But Susan sees vested interests everywhere she looks within the system. She thinks the staff at the contact centre, for example, are bound to recommend continued contact because that is what they exist to provide; and she has similar doubts about the role of the child’s solicitor.
Susan notes that before she began acting for herself, the lawyers for all parties would go off into a separate area to discuss things without her presence. That doesn’t happen now she is representing herself, and she is suspicious of why it ever did.
Whatever the merits of this particular legal action – and whether or not it should ever have been fought – what it does show is that many of those using the family courts are under considerable financial pressure, and are disillusioned with the justice system and those who work within it.
The number of people who, like Susan, are compelled to represent themselves is already rapidly increasing. If they are not treated with due respect by the professionals they encounter during the proceedings, then they will lose their faith in the court process; and as they tell the wider community about the problems they have encountered, the overall credibility of the family justice system will be damaged.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Litigation Funding magazine, providing in-depth coverage on costs and the financing of litigation.
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