Standing alone: going to the family court without a lawyer

Katherine Vaughan, Policy Researcher

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.

And it’s not only negative experiences which are problematic. Access to justice is at risk: litigants in person achieve worse outcomes compared with represented people.

“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.

Untitled drawing

In our new report – Standing Alone: going to the family court without a lawyerwe 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

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  1. Vicki

    I am a Grand Mother who has been refused access to seeing or talking to her two Grand Daughters for two years due to a breakdown in relationship with my daughter, the Mother of the Girls.
    I would like to pursue access from the Courts before they emigrate to Australia

    1. Katherine

      Hi Vicki,

      I’m afraid we can’t give advice over these blogs. Sorry about that. If you’d like to visit your local Citizens Advice, you can find your nearest office here:

      Thanks, Katherine

  2. Joanne

    I agree with these findings, but there are issues as to exactly how much public money should be made available for people to fight what are essentially private battles. Even with fully funded legal representation (which may lead to a lengthy court case with reports, evidence, and interventions from professionals), does life for the CHILDREN after all this become better? There can be great emnity involved in the breakdown of some relationships, and the level of controlling and manipulative behaviour that can exist between people is astonishing. Enforcing court orders is another huge problem- the scope of penalties that could be applied against parents without hurting the children is limited, and sadly, many people simply do not respect and abide by the orders that are made.

  3. Jennifer Clarke

    This report is great as far as it goes. But the suggestions for improvements are too limited. Surely the answer is to ensure that appropriate legal assistance and representation is available.

  4. Jo

    What a fantastic report. I am a single parent and my ex husband and his new wife threaten me with court every time something doesn’t go their way with our children. He doesn’t pay for his kids but wants to take me to court to have the children one extra night. I work four days a week but have no means to pay for a lawyer and this report is excatly my situation. I refuse to put myself in debt to fund a lawyer. More information should be accessible for people who want to represent themselves.

  5. ed hodson

    congratulations on the report. I think it raises a number of valid points and demonstrates how unfit for purpose the legal system has become, especially for those who have no one to help them through the process. More encouragingly, there is – as you identify – so many simple constructive steps that can be taken to improve the situation to everyone’s benefit. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a far-reaching reform programme.

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