I thought it might useful to extract a few relevant points from the readable but lengthy new report on research into the experiences and needs of litigants in person in private law family court cases.
Litigants in person in private family law cases – Liz Trinder, Rosemary Hunter, Emma Hitchings, Joanna Miles, Richard Moorhead, Leanne Smith, Mark Sefton, Victoria Hinchly, Kay Bader and Julia Pearce (Ministry of Justice 2014)
The report states that:
The adoption of coordinated information strategies by MoJ and the Family Court is required to meet LIPs’ information needs. (p 101)
The research team recommends:
- That all relevant family justice communications, including forms, leaflets, practice directions, templates and pro forma, are re-evaluated from the perspective of LIPs and (if necessary) redesigned with their various needs in mind.
- That a single authoritative ‘official’ family court website is established with all the resources that a LIP needs in one place.
- That the court’s communication with parties prior to the first hearing is used more effectively to convey important information to LIPs.
- That judges are encouraged to give LIPs clear verbal instructions and guidance on process and procedure.
- That the court service provides increased opportunity for face-to-face inquiries with relevant court staff and that guidelines and training for court staff are devised to facilitate information-giving whilst avoiding giving advice.
More detail below.
Support for LIPs at the time of the study was disparate, variable and limited. The internet has potential for informing LIPs, as well as some very significant drawbacks in relation to relevance, accuracy as well as accessibility for all. Few of the LIPs interviewed reported using the HMCTS or MoJ websites and those who did reported they did not meet their needs. Further, not all LIPs have access to online resources and, even for those who do, websites cannot adequately substitute for the tailored legal advice that many LIPs require.
LIPs reported frustration that organisations like CABx, the court service and Cafcass were not able to offer advice and advised them to seek legal advice that could not be afforded. There is a dearth of free or low-cost legal advice in the community.
Family and friends could be very helpful acting as informal supporters, but the development of paid ‘professional’ McKenzie Friends was a source of real concern to judges, lawyers and Cafcass officers.
As previous studies have found, the courts did little signposting to sources of support. Professional training in how to support LIPs is needed. (p 100)
The research highlighted an overwhelming need for more and better information for LIPs at every stage of the court process, echoing the recommendations of the Hickinbottom Report (Judicial Working Group on Litigants in Person 2013: para 8.3). Many of the existing resources have been produced by and for family justice professionals rather than for LIPs. An obvious priority therefore, is for all communications – forms, leaflets, signage at court – to be re-evaluated from the perspective of LIPs and (if necessary) redesigned with their various needs and approaches to preparation in mind.
At the same time, the researchers found that whilst all LIPs require information, relatively few LIPs searched proactively for information and many more do little, if any, searching. LIPs also varied in the extent to which they were able to take on board information provided, a number of them experiencing various difficulties with literacy. This has implications for the type of information provided and how it is made available. It also has implications for how far reliance can be placed on simply providing information through written and online (“passive information”) sources for LIPs to find and assimilate without any assistance. At least some of this information should be delivered directly to LIPs. Moreover, the interviews with LIPs made clear their need for supporting verbal explanations as well as passive information.
The study indicated that the current court forms are complex and difficult to complete without assistance, particularly the financial remedy forms. There is an extensive body of knowledge about how to design legal forms to make them easy for LIPs to understand (Zorza 2009:527). This knowledge could be used to redesign all court forms and accompanying leaflets. A redesign of the online HMCTS form finder to make it more LIP-friendly would be very helpful, as would a facility to e-file documents.
Given that many LIPs take a reactive or passive approach to help-seeking, it makes sense for the court to make the most effective use of its communication opportunities with LIPs, as this might be the only information that some LIPs obtain prior to attending court. Particular attention should be paid to first appointment letters so that they provide clear information on dates, times and location, a source of confusion to LIPs interviewed for the study. LIPs also asked for information about what is likely to happen at court, including an explanation of the appointments system, and what to bring. A very short but clear letter could ideally be accompanied by a hearing-specific leaflet (e.g. first hearings in Children Act matters or for financial remedies etc) with further information as well as links to the HMCTS website. It would be very useful to have a range of leaflets available on specific hearing types (first hearings, the FDR, final hearings etc) and tasks, i.e. disclosure or preparing for a contested hearing.
The research highlighted that there is a pressing need to establish a single authoritative ‘official’ website that LIPs will know immediately can be trusted as a provider of accurate, comprehensive and unbiased information with no hidden agenda. The site, in the view of the research team would ideally be part of the HMCTS site and should include all the resources that a LIP needs in one place as a virtual one stop shop. These resources would include the form finder, the full range of leaflets and a range of easily navigable information, ideally in visual as well as written form. Previous literature and the interviews with LIPs and court staff have indicated that basic ‘how to’ skills material, including how to file and serve documents, prepare a statement, negotiate etc., would be helpful for LIPs (see Moorhead and Sefton 2005). The California court website and its self – help centre provide a useful model to consider. The researchers would contrast this with the current HMCTS site which appears to be oriented primarily towards lawyers and has no visible pathway for LIPs.
The researchers would also caution against relying upon the Sorting out Separation site/app to meet the information needs of LIPs (see also Maclean 2013a, 2013b). It currently lacks the official stamp of approval that the HMCTS site would give or provides sufficient in-depth information relevant to LIPs rather than the diverse population of separated individuals. Indeed a recent evaluation of the effectiveness of the app noted that “users were often unclear about the purpose of the site and the range of information it offers” (Connors and Thomas 2014:59). It recommended that a standalone site with information clearly branded as government-supplied should replace the app embedded on different websites. The evaluation also noted a level of frustration with the limited information provided on the site prior to being signposted to other (non-government) sites (2014:59). A complementary analysis of traffic indicated that the app had attracted a fairly modest 91,469 unique users over a 13 month period to January 2014, only 13% of whom went beyond the home page (DWP 2014).