LIPs frozen out from justice

Senior judges have spoken out on the plight of litigants in person (LIPs) and the “hidden additional burden” the judiciary shoulders.

Lord Dyson, giving evidence to the Justice Committee Inquiry on the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 on 1 December, said: “It is impossible to prove but it would be extraordinary, frankly, if there were not some cases that are decided adversely to a LIP which would have been decided the other way had that LIP been represented by a competent lawyer. It is inevitable.”

“Experimental” statistics recently published by the Government have shown that the length of hearings with LIPs are no longer, on average, than where parties are represented. But Lord Dyson explained: “[This] is because, I am afraid, that very often litigants in person are totally overawed by the experience and they just dry up... frankly, they freeze.”

Problems are front-loaded at the pre-hearing and case-management stage – “where, if you have lawyers present, they are used to narrowing the issues” – and the additional burden falls to judges. “You would be surprised at how many times people come to court with the proverbial plastic bag – you cannot assume that you are not missing something unless you read every single page,” he said. The support of pro bono advocates to judges is invaluable but the whole system cannot “run on that basis”.

Sir James Munby, also giving evidence, agreed that hearings are taking longer in the early stages of family cases. “The big, big problem... is the absence of pre-litigation and pre-hearing advice,” he said. “Managing expectations is something traditionally done by the lawyers, but is now also being done by the judges” and “that is not something captured by the Government statistics”.