All practitioners in family law will recognise the scene: it is 9.45am and already the small waiting room in the county court is heaving with barristers, solicitors and parties to the proceedings. Often the morning session blurs into the afternoon and ‘justice’ is not swift.
What is this scene going to look like when the changes to legal aid are implemented? Once litigants in person swamp the courts, there will be something approaching chaos. If justice was not previously swift, it will soon be potentially glacial.
This is not to wag an accusing finger at any entity, person or organisation. Though potentially trite to say, this change could be an opportunity for growth. I hope the courts are thinking of ways to help the deluge of litigants in person that will be coming through their doors.
Numerous US states have what are called family court facilitators for both private and public law (called domestic relations, and dependency and neglect respectively) to assist with these cases. They also sometimes have staff at the courts to deal with litigants in person: pro se self-help co-ordinators. The point of these relatively new positions was to streamline the court process by trying to remove cases from busy judges and magistrates which could be dealt with informally. Having designated people who only deal with pro se litigants freed up valuable court time.
So, while the legal aid budget has been slashed, it may be that a small expenditure upfront could assist the court and the public. It would be far preferable to do something now, rather than wait for the crash.
Daniel Gallagher, Allan Rutherford Solicitors, Norwich