A leading family judge has taken part in a documentary highlighting the difficulties faced by litigants in person as a result of legal aid cuts.
His Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC, the most senior family court judge at Bristol Civil Justice Centre, spoke yesterday as part of the BBC’s Inside Out West investigation into the pressures on the family court system.
The judge, who has previously admitted to crying after one particularly challenging case, was careful not to directly criticise the government over its legal aid policy, which is currently under review.
But his appearance in the programme – in addition to his comments – are a further sign that judges would welcome changes to the scope of funding, with 80% of family cases estimated to have at least one party without legal representation.
Asked if the justice system was broken, HHJ Wildblood responded that judges would not allow this to happen, but he added: ‘Whether the overall process is fair, that people are coming to court on their own, is not really for me to say. That is for others to judge.
‘If anyone watching this can imagine themselves in court faced with somebody that they once loved on the other side of the court, supported by a barrister, and they are on their own, then I think the point answers itself. It is very difficult indeed for them.’
The judge stressed the challenges of litigants in person coming into a courtroom full of barristers, experts and other professionals, particularly if they do not speak English as a first language.
With family proceedings not open to the public, HHJ Wildblood has written plays to showcase the reality of life inside the courtroom. Scenes included the judge being shouted at by a father facing losing his children, and a mother with learning disabilities who does not understand what is happening. Both scenarios were based on real life, said HHJ Wildblood.
The Ministry of Justice said it has spent an additional £6.5m since 2015 on increasing the support available to those who represent themselves in court.
The department is due to publish its review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act by the end of this year, with campaigners hopeful of at least restoring funding for early advice.