Standing alone: going to the family court without a lawyer
Would you feel confident arguing a case in front of a judge in court? An increased number of the public are being expected to do just that when trying to resolve their family problems.
The way people use the family courts is changing
The family courts help people resolve a range of issues – from divorce and custody arrangements to complex financial issues after a separation.
Since funding for legal aid was reduced in 2013, there has been a decrease in the number of people able to access legal advice and representation. This has meant more people going to the family courts without a lawyer and representing themselves as a ‘litigant in person’: two-thirds of our advisers report an increase in the number of people they see going to court without representation since 2013.
The system is not set up to deal with people representing themselves
Some people find the experience of representing themselves to be positive, but for the majority, going to court alone is confusing, distressing and lonely. In fact, we found that seven in ten people report they might ‘think twice’ about taking a case to court by themselves without being able to afford a lawyer.
“It’s quite devastating, actually, because you’re dealing with issues to do with your children, and you can’t separate yourself from that fact, and you feel at such a disadvantage against experienced barristers or solicitors. You don’t feel like you can put your case across properly.”
Lillian, domestic abuse victim trying to make contact with her children who are in care
The process of being a litigant in person has negative impacts across people’s lives
Among those who do go to the family court as a litigant in person, nine in ten say it affected at least one other aspect of their life. Negative impacts can span mental and physical health, working life, finances or relationships.
In our new report – Standing Alone: going to the family court without a lawyer – we identified eight areas where the family court process didn’t work well for people. From the very start of the process, people struggle to understand what’s expected of them and manage complicated processes associated with going to court. Vulnerable people in particular have trouble accessing the support to which they’re entitled.
While the Ministry of Justice has taken positive steps to redirect people to alternatives to court where possible and to improve the experience of those going to court where necessary, there is further to go. The Ministry of Justice, courts, legal professionals and other service providers all have a role in improving the experience of people trying to resolve their family problems. We argue for three changes to make the family courts a better public service for their users. These include advice and information, more responsive courts and processes and improved support for vulnerable people.
More than half of the Citizens Advice network have seen an increase in the number of people choosing not to resolve their family problems since 2013. It is vital people’s experience is improved to ensure people are able to resolve their problems and reduce the negative impact on the rest of people’s lives.
Katherine Vaughan is a Policy Researcher at Citizens Advice. Follow her @VaughanKat