Ten Years on from LASPO – An On-the-Ground Perspective from Support Through Court
Published: 27/03/2023 09:30
We empower litigants in person
Every year, thousands of people in the United Kingdom face court alone. Often through no choice of their own, they must represent themselves at a moment that could determine the rest of their life. They may face divorce, eviction from their home or the loss of their children. In an unfamiliar courtroom, up against a party with legal representation, the process can be stressful and confusing.
Support Through Court stand with those who have nowhere else to turn. We provide a free service across England and Wales, offering support and guidance before, during and after court. We make sure people facing court are not alone, and help them to navigate a complex legal system with dignity and self-assurance. Our 500+ volunteers help clients to put their papers in order, help them to prepare what they need to say in court and empower them to represent themselves.
The challenges of accessing justice
We are no strangers to the many barriers to accessing justice – from financial and language barriers through to barriers imposed by society and as a result of legislation. Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was implemented in April 2013, putting most social welfare and private children and family cases out of the scope for legal aid, we are continuing to see increasing numbers of clients seeking support. In the last financial year, despite periods of closure due to lockdowns, we helped clients on 49,346 occasions, with our National Helpline covering 13,701 of these contacts.
The consequences of missing out on legal advice can be far reaching. For a significant proportion of litigants in person, the burden of having to represent themselves can lead to relationship breakdown, mental health problems, financial difficulty and even job loss. It can be a downward spiral, leaving people in a worse place than it should. Family breakdown has a serious impact on children, magnified by extended periods of conflict and unsatisfactory outcomes. We regularly see clients who are affected by secondary problems, and we keep close relationships with mental health charities, domestic abuse organisations and debt agencies, referring clients to these groups on a regular basis.
Some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised members of our society have been hardest hit by the changes. Legal troubles are often compounded by additional disadvantages such as unemployment, language barriers and mental or physical disability. In the last financial year, 77% of the clients we saw told us English was their first language; 49% told us they were in employment (with the remainder either unemployed or self-employed); and 26% reported serious health problems, with 10% registered as disabled. LASPO is having an impact across all parts of society, but it is often those facing multiple disadvantages who are most severely affected.
Taking steps to support litigants in person
We ensure that those facing court alone feel prepared and supported in accessing justice. In an ideal world, our client numbers would be declining as litigants in person get the help and support they need. We step in to fill the gap, assisting people such as Elly.
When Elly1 first came to visit us, she was very anxious. After years in an abusive marriage, she had finally got divorced some time before. She had given her husband multiple chances to redeem himself, even after going into a refuge. Every time he appeared to have changed, but would eventually show his dark, true colours. Elly and her children have all been affected by the abuse, which is why she eventually decided she would not accept his behaviour any more. When they divorced, she thought she and her children were finally able to continue their lives without him.
But now he has brought her to court, claiming he is entitled to a share of her properties. When she was informed by the court that her ex-husband had applied for a financial settlement, she ‘didn’t have a clue what to do’.
As a lay person, she found it very difficult to understand documents from the court, and didn’t know what to do next. Our volunteers helped her to make sense of the documents, by putting words into basic English. We also helped her to express her thoughts in a clear, organised way – Elly stresses how important this was for her, as she is dyslexic.
At times it was all very overwhelming. For a while, she struggled with suicidal feelings, and found it hard to get out of bed because she was so depressed. She found the strength to come to Support Through Court many times over, and says ‘Support Through Court gave me a lot of guidance and hope’.
As the court date came closer, one of our volunteers referred her for legal advice, which she found very helpful: ‘[The Solicitor] was very detailed over the phone, she understood my situation very well, and she put everything in writing’. The solicitor, she adds, used very simple language when giving her legal advice, which helped her to understand what to do next.
Since then, Elly has come back to us for more support: she believes that Support Through Court’s volunteers save lives, just by listening, offering a drink and showing kindness.
We also referred her to Advocate to get legal representation and she now has a barrister for her case, whom she is working with to get justice for herself and her children. She also managed to arrange counselling for herself. Sometimes it still gets too much, but thanks to the help she received she says she ‘came out very positive and stronger’.
Towards a fairer future
Where do we go from here? Until changes are made, we will continue to develop our capacity to support more people who cannot access legal aid or afford a solicitor. In fact, over the next 5 years we are looking to make some big changes in the way that we work, so that we can double the number of unrepresented people we are working alongside. We will use technology to connect with more people, in more places, more cost effectively. We wll invest in recruiting and training more volunteers to empower people dealing with the stressful navigation of the court process. And we will continue to ensure that clients are at the heart of all we do, so they know they are not alone.