There is currently an enormous amount of pressure on the family courts with the rise of litigants in person. A ‘litigant in person’ is an individual who exercises their right to conduct legal proceedings on their own behalf. Many parties, particularly fathers, have had no choice other than to become litigants in person after the major reduction of legal aid provision from April 2013. The abundance of free online information means that more and more parties have made a conscious decision to act as litigants in person. However, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and litigants in person can often feel overwhelmed by the court process, especially where the other party has legal representation.
Litigants in person should remember that a judge’s role is to determine both the facts of the case and the law applicable to those facts. Whilst judges have to increasingly deal with cases involving litigants in person, more and more often they deal with litigants in person on both sides. Presenting a case involving points of law is no easy task for lawyers with many years of experience, let alone a litigant in person. Indeed, litigants in person present significant difficulties for the court process because the wrong application may have been made, the court may not have the power to do what is being asked of it, there may be no papers to assist with what is happening in the case, or there may well have been no productive discussions on the matter outside court or before the hearing. It may be that the level of animosity between the parties is such that they are simply not capable of speaking to each another.
Judging in cases with litigants in person on each side can have dangerous consequences. A hearing in Southend County Court in October 2013 saw a litigant in person father attack the mother whilst the District Judge was passing judgment. In the attack, the mother was punched, thrown to the floor, kicked and had her hair grabbed. The father was convicted and sentenced to prison for two years.
It is expected that with the increasing numbers of litigants in person, judges will need to be exceptionally proactive in managing cases where litigants in person are involved, particularly where the other party has legal representation, to ensure that the litigant in person is not disadvantaged in the proceedings. This is why, if your case goes to court, it is important to obtain professional legal representation.