Willard Foxton

How legal aid reforms are clogging up the courts

Litigants in person – individuals representing themselves, rather than relying on a lawyer – have always been a feature in courts, and are the source of the aphorism ‘a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client’. While the profusion of courts means there are no easily available statistics as to their numbers, as late as 2011, about one fifth of cases featured litigants in person. Since the government slashed legal aid in April of last year, the number of them has exploded. While the funding for these cases has vanished, the right to go to court has not.

The most recent set of figures is for autumn 2013 – before many cases under the new regime were launched. Lawyers and judges tell me anecdotally numbers have spiked – about half of cases with one party or other unrepresented is a rough number that many judges and barristers agree on, and Judges have gone on the record to say unrepresented people now are the majority of cases. Litigants in person are getting higher and higher up the justice system too – only last week, the Supreme court issued guidelines for dealing with people without legal representation arguing before it, in preparation for a string of upcoming cases.

Mister Justice Holman did a good job of summing up the difficulties judges face on trying to rule in these disputes:

‘I have no  legal representation…no expert evidence of any kind. I do not even have such basic materials as an orderly bundle of the relevant documents; a chronology; case summaries, and still less, any kind of skeleton argument. Instead, I have had to rummage through the admittedly slim court file..I shall do my best to reach a fair and just outcome, but I am the first to acknowledge that I am doing little more than “rough justice”.’

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