People forced to represent themselves in court `at risk of failing to get fair trial'
PEOPLE forced to represent themselves in court proceedings are at risk of failing to get a fair trial, a major study has found.
In the first research of its kind in Northern Ireland, academics at Ulster University explored the experience of those who take or defend civil and family law cases without legal representation.
The latest court service figures reveal that 15,000 people - 20 per cent of litigants - represented themselves, all but around 5,000 of that number taking actions in the small claims court.
The next largest numbers were in divorce, bankruptcy, family proceedings, family homes and domestic violence and civil cases.
The study focuses on private family law and bankruptcy where a significant number of personal litigants are to be found.
Researchers concluded that "two main areas of the right to a fair trial are under threat: effective participation and equality of arms".
The study found it is difficult for litigants in person (LIPs) to find information and they are often not present in court when decisions are being made.
In addition, it can be difficult to "distance their emotional involvement from their case" meaning "effective participation is impaired".
Meanwhile, in relation to equality of arms - the fair balance between the parties in the opportunities given to them to present their case in a manner that does not disadvantage them - "some judges went further than others in trying to reach this balance".
They warn that in some cases "where a LIP refuses to follow the rules of court and deliberately blocks the progress of a case" a fair trial is threatened for both parties.
Lord Justice Ben Stephens said it is "a welcome first major study of personal litigants, their circumstances and experiences in the courts in Northern Ireland".
"The research shines an important light on an issue that has become increasingly significant to the daily work of the courts," he said.
"Going to court is stressful for individuals, particularly so where a person does not have a lawyer to assist with the legal requirements and procedures."
He acknowledged that "obtaining the necessary information can be difficult" for LIPs.
The report found, although they are "legitimate court users", those representing themselves "felt out of place, like outsiders" and suffer "negative or debilitating emotions and high levels of anxiety".
Many of the LIPs in the study "had sought legal representation or expressed a desire for it, but were unable to secure it either because they did not meet the threshold criteria for publicly supported legal assistance or they could not afford it".
The study pointed out "the court’s duty is to serve litigants and not solely their representatives" and people have the right to represent themselves but should not be required to "be turned into lawyers to pursue their cases".
Lead investigator, Ulster University Professor Gráinne McKeever, said the research shows "there is a clear need for a cultural change in the legal system towards litigants in person".
She said there must be "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".
The study recommends a central information hub with a qualified lawyer to "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".