His Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC recently appeared on the BBC’s Inside Out West, expressing his concerns over the rise in the number of people who have no option but to represent themselves in private law children cases.
These are cases where parents cannot agree over arrangements for their children, whether that is with whom their child should live with, when they should spend time with the other parent, or arrangements as to how the child should move from the care of one parent to the other. The court is left to decide what arrangements should be put in place.
Statistics reveal that in 2017, 64% of litigants represented themselves in such proceedings, compared to 39% in 2011. This is quite a worrying increase in the number of people that find themselves unrepresented in court, possibly facing a former partner represented by an experienced lawyer.
The judge, who is currently the most senior Family Court judge at Bristol Civil Justice Centre, talked of the difficulties faced by people representing themselves, known as litigants in person, in such cases. He said, ‘if anyone watching this can imagine themselves in court faced with somebody that they once loved on the other side of the court, supported by a barrister, and they are on their own, then I think the point answers itself. It is very difficult indeed for them.’ He goes on to say that the difficulties faced by litigants in person are only exacerbated when English is not their first language.
Litigants in person face difficulties from the outset of such proceedings, a long time before they have to step foot inside a court room. Official court documents must be completed and filed with the court, and they require careful drafting to avoid mistakes that can result in added cost and delay. There are also requirements in terms of how practically to submit the documents and fees to pay, all of which add to the mix.
His Honour Judge Wildblood QC gives a personal example of when he was required to fill out a court document, applying for power of attorney, you can learn more here to find the right professional. He filled the form in incorrectly, costing him around £400 to rectify the mistake. If the most senior family judge in Bristol can struggle with official court documents, one can only imagine the difficulties faced by those who have never stepped foot inside a courtroom before.
Where possible, it is always advisable to seek professional legal advice from a specialist family solicitor to assist you throughout your proceedings, allowing you to make informed and considered decisions on issues relating to your family and children. However, this is not always possible, usually for financial reasons. Many lawyers attribute the rise in litigants in person to the withdrawal of legal aid for private family law matters in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
One of the key concerns in the legal community is that the removal of legal aid has transpired to be quite a short sighted way to save public money. Instead of paying a lawyer through legal aid to assist a party to help them bring their case to a close at as early an opportunity as possible, the government is now faced with many more cases before the Family Courts; and those cases taking longer to resolve because the litigants in person perhaps do not have that objective guidance that can be offered by a lawyer. Some would say that the pressures on budgets have just been moved from one department to another.
At Maguire Family Law we strive to provide the advice to our clients that they need and in a way in which they can afford it. It is part of our service pledge that the right level of lawyer, at the right charge-out rate, will deal with each aspect of your case. For some people, it may just be that they need an introductory steer on how to approach matters; and this is something that can be explored during an initial consultation.