Confusion and vulnerability for people who represent themselves in family courts

As the numbers of people representing themselves in family court rises, the Law Society of England and Wales and Support Through Court have lifted the lid on what it’s like for people navigating the court process alone.

The Law Society recently analysed figures* showing that thousands of people are being forced to take on private family law cases involving divorce or separation on their own – as they have no access to funded legal advice.

Figures show the increase in both cases without legal representation and court backlogs across the country between 2016 and 2023.

There was an 81% increase in backlogs and a 96% increase in cases where people were unrepresented. Areas that were worst hit include:

  • Essex and Suffolk – 195% increase in backlogs and 243% increase in unrepresented parties
  • Medway and Canterbury – 236% increase in backlogs and 290% increase in unrepresented parties

For public family law cases, which are about removing a child from their parents into local authority care, representation is particularly crucial.

However, analysis shows that in some areas more than a quarter of parties in these public family law cases are unrepresented including:

  • Medway and Canterbury – 30% unrepresented
  • Portsmouth (Hampshire and Isle of Wight) – 28% unrepresented
  • North Wales – 27% unrepresented
  • Devon – 26.5% unrepresented
  • South East Wales – 25% unrepresented

In 2023 more than half of all areas had a backlog in excess of 1,000 cases (23 out 43 areas, or 53%) when combining public and private family law cases.

Law Society president, Nick Emmerson, said: “Our members tell us that they see litigants in person (LiPs) who represent themselves feeling overwhelmed with court process, court orders and procedure rules, which leads them to have difficulties.

“The family courts are in a dire state and the system is plagued with delays.

"Families and children have been left at the mercy of a failing justice system and face uncertainty about their future living arrangements. LiPs who have to navigate the system alone face a daunting process in a high stakes situation.

“Some strides have been made to improve the family justice system such as an early legal advice pilot and a pledge to introduce a new online information and guidance tool to support earlier resolution of family disputes.

"There has also been a small improvement in 2024 of the number of cases with representation in private family law. However, much more is needed to make our family law justice system fit for purpose.”

Lizzy Parkes, national helpline manager at Support Through Court said: “the experience of representing oneself in court is overwhelming.

“Many of the family cases we are seeing at our service are eligible for legal aid but cannot find a legal aid provider with the capacity to take on new cases.

“At the same time, the majority, if not all, of the cases involve domestic abuse. These cases are emotionally distressing and this is further exacerbated when those involved are forced to represent themselves.

“There’s a huge increase in mental health problems in the clients approaching our service and mentions of suicidal ideation. It is challenging for clients to represent themselves in their own cases and this is putting them under extreme stress.

“Many of our clients also do not have access to technology or regular access to the internet. They are struggling to manage their entire case, prepare documents, submit paperwork and write up witness statements on their phones themselves.”

Liz Fisher-Frank, acting director at Essex Law Clinic and a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Committee, said: “university law clinics provide an important service for litigants in person in family law and are being inundated as a result of cuts to legal aid.

“The clients we see online and in the community are often marooned within the family court system. Not eligible for legal aid and without the financial means to afford representation, growing numbers have no option but to appear in court as a litigant in person. This has a particular impact in cases concerning children.

“Where in the past a solicitor’s letter may have resolved issues or encouraged mediation, now clients seeking to resolve issues, where necessary, must navigate the process of making an application to the court on their own – which can be incredibly daunting and for some simply too much to deal with.

"This is causing real damage to relationships within families and creating instability in children’s lives.”

The Law Society is calling on the next government to:

  • increase civil legal aid fees so that legal aid providers remain viable and people can access their right to legal advice
  • uprate civil legal aid means test eligibility so more people on lower incomes can access justice
  • collect and publish better data on the family justice system

Notes to editors

*Read Afzal Khan MP’s PQ on behalf of the Law Society on how many cases in private and family law involve cases without legal representation

*Read Alex Cunningham MP’s PQ on behalf of the Law Society on how many open family cases there are in each DFG are for public and private family law and what proportion of those cases in each area involve cases without legal representation in 2011, 2016 and 2019

England and Wales is divided into geographical areas which are managed and led by the designated family judge (DFG).

A DFG is responsible for providing leadership to the family judiciary within a group of courts or court centre.

Essex Law Clinic delivers free legal advice and access to justice for the local community, while giving law students pro bono experience and the opportunity to build valuable practical legal skills.

Support Through Court has provided a case study – Elly’s Story – which details a case which involved domestic abuse and mental health support.

Lizzy Parkes is available to speak to media, please contact the press team below to arrange an interview.

About Support Through Court

Support Through Court logoSupport Through Court is a charity that helps people facing civil and family courts alone. It has 600 volunteers across England and Wales.

About the Law Society

The Law Society is the independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, promoting the highest professional standards, the public interest and the rule of law.

Press office contact: Naomi Jeffreys | 020 8049 3928 | Shanzeh Haque | 07706 989843 |

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