More people are going it

The rise in litigants in person

Elisabeth Davies“Whether people use barristers’ services or not, we think we have a responsibility to explain and demystify the legal system to anyone who comes into contact with it.”  This statement isn’t from a Consumer Panel report, but from the introduction of a welcome new leaflet from the Bar Council offering advice on finding free or affordable legal help, putting a case together, starting or defending a case, and what to expect if you have to go to court.

Produced on the day the legal aid cuts came into force it resonates with two key developments that will form the backbone of the Consumer Panel’s recently published work programme for 2013/2014: Understanding the regulatory implications of the rise in litigants in person, and addressing the consumer protection and quality implications of DIY law and self-help tools.

The Civil Justice Council has predicted that people who represent themselves in court will soon become the rule rather than the exception. Currently it is estimated that half of all private family law cases involve one or more self-represented party. Meanwhile a report published by the Legal Services Board in June 2012 revealed that nearly a quarter of all legal needs are handled alone.

I don’t doubt that are a number of reasons for these changes. The Legal Services Board report found nearly a quarter of consumers who handled their problem alone believed the legal need would not be difficult to resolve, while a further 17% were confident they could handle it alone. However, whilst individuals may self-represent because of the belief that they are able to present their case effectively, there is no doubt that cost is also a critical factor.

From the Panel perspective, we’ve got to make sure that we understand what this means for how consumers choose and use legal services.   And we’ve got to question the wider implications.  For example, what are the implications of the emerging market of unregulated ‘professional’ McKenzie Friends? These may be self-employed persons or organisations which charge litigants in person for their services. McKenzie Friends may provide valuable expertise and charge lower fees than a legal advisor, representing a good option for some consumers. However, there is also the potential for consumer detriment – confusion about the limit of help which a McKenzie Friend is permitted to offer; the competence of advisors and escalating fees; and no recourse to the Legal Ombudsman.

What’s clear is that there’s a need for more research with people who handle legal problems alone to learn about their experiences. As the scope of legal aid narrows, cuts to the advice sector bite and the economic situation continues to squeeze household budgets, it is likely that fewer people will be able to afford or access traditional legal advice. More and more people with legal needs are likely to address these alone in future and the implications of this must be fully understood. Armed with this knowledge, we can understand better the opportunities and risks for consumers – and then begin to address some of the challenges.