The UK Law Gazette has a good (if anxious) roundup article on the impact of the self-represented on the courts in the UK, with a focus on the likely impact of the looming legal aid cuts.
This quote form a judge is nice:
Judge Simon Brown QC, the designated Mercantile judge for the Midlands, helped design the website for the Mercantile Courts with an ‘easy guide’ to each stage of a case and a link to relevant forms which can be emailed in to the court.
He is concerned that the court service’s ‘modernisation’ plans will result in counter services being reduced. ‘Modernisation’ must mean more than just cutting, he says. He recommends webpages for all aspects of court work and an electronic documents management system which the US courts have achieved with an ‘off-the-shelf easy-to-use package’. This would free up court clerks from paper-chasing, so they can act as the key interface for LiPs. Crucially, costs budgets should be filed at the case management conference, so LiPs know what they can recover and their potential exposure to the other side’s costs.
He recalls one case where a claimant was suing a party under a commercial agent’s agreement. ‘After he opened his case, it appeared he had got the wrong end of the stick. While he had spent nothing apart from fares and downtime, the army of lawyers on the other side had spent £90,000. His wife was in court. She hauled him out and he came back in and accepted a drop-hand settlement.’
Judge Brown sees himself as a ‘case manager – somewhere between a mediator and a trial judge. When one of the parties is a LiP, I will explain procedures and make observations. Lawyers on the other side are officers of the court so they should also help – parties may want to kill each other as in a duel but lawyers must act as seconds to help the parties with that process.’
The Public Support Unit for the self-represented report:
The support groups helping LiPs to navigate the court process highlight the huge difficulties many face. The Public Support Unit (PSU) estimates that 30-40% of its 3,000 clients at the Royal Courts of Justice annually have some form of mental health issue; 27% of its clients nationwide report that they have a serious health problem; and 15% are registered disabled. A small but significant proportion is homeless or have no regular access to the internet or phone. And for a quarter of its 7,000 clients nationally, English is not their first language.
PSU director Judith March, a member of the CJC working party, says November was the busiest month they have ever had at the RCJ with 350 LiPs contacting them, compared with a monthly average of 280. Numbers are also increasing at their units at the Principle Registry, Wandsworth County Court, south-west London, and the civil justice centres in Manchester and Cardiff.
The PSU, which hopes to launch a second London unit as well as units in Liverpool and Birmingham this year, survives on a small grant from the MoJ, a friends’ scheme and individual donations. ‘A lot of my time is taken up seeking money from trusts and foundations,’ March says. ‘We have funding from the Bar Council, ILEX and the Inns of Court and have submitted an application to the Law Society. We also plan to seek support from major law firms – it is important the legal world does its bit.’
Some LiPs may feel they have not been treated fairly, she says, but, on the whole, the judiciary and court staff do everything they can to make the experience easier. ‘There are some quick wins you could make by changing the language in the guidance and forms; court websites could also be improved. It is also very important that data about LiPs is collected systematically.’
We are going to see lots more of this as the UK Coalition cuts heavily into legal aid funding.