10 October 2017

Family courts suffer impact of growing number of litigants in person

Family courts are finding the rapidly increasing number of litigants in person a drain on resources.

A record high number of people were forced to represent themselves in the family court this year, with at least one party unrepresented by lawyers in 64 per cent of cases including divorce, children and money cases. Research carried out by law firm Collyer Bristow found that the proportion of people representing themselves in court - known as ‘litigants in person’ - has increased significantly year on year in family cases, jumping from 41.8 per cent of cases in 2012/13.

Legal aid withdrawal

A key driver for the jump in the number of litigants in person has been the withdrawal of legal aid which was removed from most family cases, other than a small proportion of those involving domestic abuse, in April 2013. Over the last 10 years there has been an 88 per cent drop in the number of legal aid cases in the Family Court, which has contributed to the growth of litigants in person. 

Mediation

Philippa Dolan, partner at Collyer Bristow, says that by representing themselves, it is less likely that litigants will be encouraged to engage in mediation whereas lawyers recommend this option to their clients as a matter of course. Family lawyers also discourage their clients from using the court and instead seek agreement through negotiation, she said. Furthermore, cases involving litigants in person often take longer with judges obliged to give them advice about the process and presentation of their case, putting yet more pressure on the court.

Collateral damage

 'The record high number of litigants in person in the Family Court is creating collateral damage and many unfair outcomes. There are often children or vulnerable people involved in these cases, whose interests are regularly endangered. Litigants in person are at profound disadvantage and it is simply wrong that sensitive family cases should not be left to someone inexperienced in law, and emotionally embroiled in the issues,' she said. 

Pressure on judges 

She added that 'the pressure on judges to manage their courts in the face of already swingeing cuts in the budget is also causing a crisis in the recruitment of judges. This is a ticking time bomb and a disgraceful state of affairs that needs to be addressed urgently. None of the main political parties appears to have grasped the significance of this crisis.'