Family justice minister Simon Hughes has pledged to create a country-wide network of in-court advice centres for unrepresented people.
Hughes had promised action on litigants in person at the Liberal Democrat conference earlier this month. He admitted then that the effect of legal aid cuts to many areas of civil law – particularly in the family courts – had left many people having to represent themselves.
Money provided by the Ministry of Justice will fund the initiative, including the Personal Support Unit, which already assists more than 1,200 litigants a month in eight units across England and Wales. The MoJ will provide £600,000 to fund the set-up costs and a further £1.4m a year thereafter.
Other new features will include:
- Additional LawWorks Clinics established to increase the supply of initial legal advice, work with the local legal professions and advice agencies, and with law schools where possible
- Advice made available by phone and email to local and regional centres from RCJ Advice, together with information and materials produced through working with Law for Life and via Law for Life’s online Advicenow project
- One named person in each court centre to manage the new service as well as an appointed judge in each court centre with particular responsibility for litigants in person.
Hughes wants to increase the number of advisers in courts across the country, and link claimants with pro bono lawyers for legal support and even court representation.
In a written ministerial statement given to the House of Commons today, Hughes said online information will be improved so it is ‘accurate, engaging and easy to find’.
He added: ‘The government is committed to making sure that when people separate that they do it in the best possible way.
‘Too many people end up fighting expensive and confrontational court battles when they could be helped to resolve their problems outside of the courts. However when people do end up in court it is imperative that they have the right advice and information.’
Extra advice is expected to be provided by law graduates and retired volunteers. Mediation will also be encouraged, and a telephone and online advice service will be provided with the assistance of Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).
The Law Society today welcome measures to help unrepresented people but warned against relying on lawyers offering free advice.
A spokesman said: ‘Legal aid cuts have forced more and more people into “do it yourself” justice, where they find themselves in strange surroundings, dealing with unfamiliar procedures while trying to sort out the future of their children, family home and finances.
‘A support strategy is not the solution for the many vulnerable people who need early, expert legal advice. Pro bono advice can never be a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system.’
Family mediation organisation Resolution said the new support amounted to a ‘sticking plaster’ for a family justice system wounded by cuts to legal aid.
Vice-chair Nigel Shepherd said: ‘It seems strange to me that this government has vowed to help people resolve their family disputes out of court, but today’s announcement is only going to help people who end up there.
‘The notion that the first thing you do when you decide to separate is walk into a court building is at best misguided.’
A Labour spokesman described the move as a ‘panic response’ to the crisis in the family courts system, adding: ’It is more about the immediate problem of courts clogged with litigants in person than about providing proper legal advice and representation. £1.4m or around £10,000 per court is hardly a substitute for the £350m cut from civil legal aid.’