Cuts to civil legal aid have ‘undoubtedly’ caused a significant increase in the number of litigants in person in court, the lord chief justice has told MPs.

Appearing before the commons justice committee yesterday, Sir John Thomas said the number of people representing themselves in family courts has risen in the past year.

Pressed by MPs on the effects of last April’s legal aid cuts for most family cases, Sir John said he could not comment on the reforms themselves, but he conceded there is more pressure on the court system.

‘There has been a significant increase [in LiPs]. I find that out when I talk to district judges and it’s having an effect on the bottom rung. It is particularly acute in family cases as two people are required to be adversarial.’

He added: ‘All my colleagues who do cases with litigants in person say it significantly added to the time [the case takes]. The saving you get by not having lawyers has to be counter-balanced by the increase you have to have in court time.’

Sir John said the courts were starting to find ways to address the problem of litigants in person.

‘In many of the large centres we now have a personal support unit which takes [away] the feeling of it being strange and not understanding the process. In some courts in London and possibly Manchester and Birmingham they have persuaded young lawyers who work in the commercial world to come and give free services. I find them extremely helpful.’

Sir John endorsed the government’s plan to modernise the courts themselves as part of an investment programme announced last week.

The lord chief justice called for a ‘proper strategy’ to ensure courts are built only when necessary and more use is made of community facilities.

‘Wasteful planning is one of the thing that hang round our necks. We have built buildings that are too elaborate and therefore shut courts to justify the return on capital – this has not been a properly thought through system. 

‘We have the opportunity now to deliver justice much more in the way we might have done 40 years ago, in smaller non-purpose-built buildings but linked with modern technology.’