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Better support sought for people representing themselves in court

Academics examined the barriers people face attending court without a lawyer (Clara Molden/PA) Photo: PA Wire/PA Images

More support should be offered to those who represent themselves in court to ensure they get a fair trial, researchers have suggested.

Ulster University academics have examined the barriers people face when they attend court without a lawyer.

The resulting report has called for cultural change and more information to improve understanding of court procedures and the overall experience of going to court without a lawyer.

Ulster University Professor of Law and Social Justice Grainne McKeever led the research which was carried out in association with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

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It revealed that the main reasons why people represent themselves in court are financial, but that some choose to do so because of a negative experience of legal representation in the past.

Many faced problems with completing and submitting the appropriate paperwork, as well as understanding the legal arguments in their case.

The research identified a significant lack of public information and advice on the practical, procedural and legal issues relating to court proceedings.

As part of the research, a procedural advice clinic for individuals representing themselves in matrimonial or family law cases was trialled, and received positive feedback.

Professor McKeever said the research showed a “clear need for a cultural change in the legal system towards litigants in person”.

“We recommend putting those who wish to self-represent at the centre of the development of reforms alongside dedicated training to support judges and lawyers to provide recognition that individuals have a right to self-represent and should be supported to do so,” she said.

“The creation of a central information hub is advised where a qualified lawyer can provide procedural advice as early as possible in the process to help people who go to court without a lawyer to participate effectively in their court proceedings.

“Although the help of the advice clinic was not enough to help litigants in person match the advantages of legal representation in most cases, there is clear evidence that improved access to legal services, better information on court procedures and relevant law, as well as guidance on how to complete court forms and documents would remove many of the barriers that threaten the right to a fair trial.”

Chief Commissioner of the NIHRC Les Allamby welcomed the research.

“The recommendations provide a road map for lawyers, judges, administrators and personal litigants to tackle the issues identified,” he said.

“It is in all our interests to improve the experience for the thousands of people who have to represent themselves and to ensure justice is both done and seen to be done.”