Unacceptable Delay

As we move into June I am reminded of a letter I wrote to Jonathan Djanogly on 8 June last year, which has so far gone unacknowledged. It read:

Dear Mr Djanogly,

Family Courts without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person

I am pleased to enclose with this letter a copy of my recently published book, the subject matter of which I hope you will find of interest.

I am a family barrister, working daily with families experiencing relationship breakdown and working through its consequences. As such, I am aware of the practical, legal and emotional complexities that such cases can often involve.

You will see from my book that I am supportive of attempts to divert separated couples from the court arena, but I know from experience that mediation and other forms of ADR will not work in a core of cases. Those that cannot be successfully resolved by mediation or agreement will, by their very nature, be more likely to be precisely the kind of disputes that would be most efficiently and most fairly dealt with through the support and guidance of competent legal specialists.

A high proportion of my clients have within their own personal history or within their immediate family a background of alcohol or substance abuse, domestic abuse or dysfunctional family relationships, learning disabilities or mental health problems or neglectful or abusive childhood experiences that have affected their adult functioning. I am very concerned about the prospect of many individuals like those I represent having to deal with their family difficulties in future without the benefit of skilled legal advice and representation.

I have been so concerned about the potential injustices that may be caused to parents and to their children in the absence of competent legal advice and representation for family cases that I have written this book. A miscarriage of justice for a parent may have a lifelong impact on the children, indeed it may have intergenerational consequences (with all the associated cost to the public purse).

Whilst I hope that my book will ameliorate some of the difficulties faced by Litigants in Person, and that it will help to reduce the disadvantages faced by them, I do not think that it is an adequate substitute for legal advice and representation, nor do I think that in itself tools such as my book can be a proxy for the Government fulfilling its duty to provide access to justice. Many of my clients have very low levels of educational attainment, struggle with literacy or language and may struggle to cope because of poor mental health or stress. My book would not help them. It will help a limited number of reasonably educated, emotionally stable individuals to lessen (but not remove) the obstacles they face in the event that they find themselves with no alternative but to ask the court for help.

I hope that you and colleagues at the Ministry of Justice will reflect upon the contents of my book and the quantity of information contained in it: it merely skims the surface of family law and the operation of the family courts. Bearing in mind the sheer scale of the task faced by Litigants in Person in trying to grapple with these issues whilst in the midst of the most traumatic time of their lives, do you really believe that access to justice can be preserved in the event that the Government implements the proposals contained in the Legal Aid Green Paper?

I should be happy to hear any feedback on the publication or in respect of my comments.

Yours etc.

Now I know that Mr Djanogly thinks that 52 weeks is an unacceptably long delay, because he is always telling us so. I am therefore confident that by close of business on Friday his response will be with me (along with his bulk order).

ROFL, as they say.

Jubilee free blog post

As per usual I've hidden away a few items of interest in assorted locations, in inboxes and notes to self across my various devices - flagged and then forgotten.

And this rainy Sunday evening seemed like a good time to sort them out and tick them off my list. I've already conquered my hangover by an epic sorting out of the tupperware mountain that lurks in the deepest corners of my (formerly) disgustingly dirty kitchen cupboards. And I feel quite virtuous as a result. Far more constructive use of time than waving a plastic flag at the telly.

First up is Legal Liberal, who writes about a recent Supreme Court decision arising out of a family dispute, and more particularly about What the Supreme Court Didn't Say.

Next is the transcript of the recent Westminster debate on family courts (h/t @thesmallplaces). Most interesting is Jonathan Djanogly's bit, where he sets out a list of radical changes that will fix the broken family justice system (all of which have a familiar ring to them on account of having been implemented before), describes the new data management system in public law cases and tells us we really don't need to worry about a surge in litigants in person - it'll be FINE - relax!

And finally, a rather depressing post concerning a rather depressing judgment telling us what we all probably knew about the difficulties with prior authority and funding just about anything. Thanks @suesspiciousmin, that really cheered us up.

Rainy evening. Gloomy days.

Still, never mind. The Queen's got a shiny barge.

Family Courts without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants In Person

 

The Interim Report of the ongoing Family Justice Review notes that,

Family Courts without a Lawyer

"Adults find the system confusing and characterised by legalese whether they are involved in public or private law...In private law, it is difficult for adults to navigate the system on their own. Two anonymous respondents to the call for evidence highlight this. For one, “it is a minefield and not clear what the processes are. Forms are too complicated and lengthy”. Another notes simply, “a lay person is easily lost”...Proposed changes to legal aid, should they go ahead, will mean more people choosing to represent themselves as litigants in person. This complexity will, as a result, become an increasingly important weakness." (2.45-2.47)

The Government is widely expected to publish a draft Legal Aid Bill in the next couple of weeks, with a view to implementing in large part the drastic cuts to the scope of Legal Aid referred to in the extract above, and foreshadowed in the Legal Aid Green Paper.

It seems highly likely that there will be more and more Litigants in Person dealing with their family disputes, and more and more Litigants in Person faced in court not by a lawyer, but by another Litigant in Person.

I started work on my book for Litigants in Person a couple of years ago. Even then there was a real issue to be tackled - the inability of many to afford or access legal representation presented a profound barrier to justice. In the past this has in large part been a problem for a category of person who is in work, but who as a result of a low income is neither eligible for legal aid nor wealthy enough to pay privately for legal help. In future, if the Government's proposals are implemented nobody will be able to access legal aid for private law cases except in the most limited categories of case. It seems likely that only the very wealthy and those who have suffered domestic violence (or made an allegation of dv) will have the means to pursue their cases with the kind of legal advice and representation that they need to make the system work well for their family.

Finally the book is with the printers. It has been a lot more work than I envisaged. It is easy to take for granted all the knowledge that you build up over the years - but when you have to break it down and explain it to someone who has never set foot inside a court building before you begin to realise how daunting it must be to be a Litigant in Person attempting to navigate the family courts alone.

I hope I've struck the right balance between covering the majority of things that are likely to be helpful to litigants and providing too much information, but I would welcome any suggestions for how the book and the resources within it could be improved upon. I'd love to hear whether the book has been helpful in due course.

You can find out more about the book and buy a copy of it at www.nofamilylawyer.co.uk.