Litigants in Person - The Harsh Reality of Facing the Court System Alone

Case Study: Litigants in person - facing the court system alone

Today I attend court with a mother in a case where the father is seeking a child arrangement order to have contact with their children. We first meet at the Personal Support Unit office where I am informed of the details of the case so far. The stage we are at today is the final hearing. As volunteers are not assigned to cases just individual hearings, the client expresses how exhausting it is to explain and relive emotions to a new volunteer at every hearing.

We make our way down to court; we take a seat and wait. Waiting for a hearing can take a few hours and for this reason we make conversation about how the children are, how their weekend was, anything just to help the client feel comfortable in what can be a daunting place. Whilst this conversation takes place I am struck by the client’s question, how to address the Magistrates. It is not a silly question, just another reminder that people everyday face the court process alone who are unaware of how the system works. What is more, those most likely to be caught up in the system as those who are least likely to be able to cope with it without significant help and guidance.

During our waiting period for the hearing CAFCASS try and negotiate a solution between the mother and father who unfortunately cannot come to an agreement. I wonder how effective negotiations would have if legal professionals had been involved at the very beginning of the case and whether coming to court could have been avoided all together.

At the hearing I take notes but a difficulty arises when my client does not understand a question and so provides a wrong answer. When she later tries to correct the position this causes considerable confusion. Eventually, the Magistrates decide to adjourn the hearing to deliberate. Again I wish somebody was representing this client and individuals like it. It is quite clear from what I have seen that the client struggled to represent herself.

We are called back in to hear the Magistrates’ decision. The outcome is not one the client wanted. Whilst I explain the terms of the order my client breaks down crying. The final conclusion for me as a volunteer is not about what the client wanted, or whether the decision made was right or wrong. My conclusion is that it could have been different had the right help been provided. For now the Personal Support Unit and others continue to provide invaluable support. However, as this hearing has shown, it is not a substitute for proper legal advice and representation. I cannot help but wonder how many other mothers like this woman have also been failed by the system.

- Mayuri Patel -