The book that all family practitioners wish they had written

21 July 2011 by

Review: Family Courts without a Lawyer: A Handbook for Litigants in Person – Lucy Reed – Buy book here

Family Courts without a Lawyer : A Handbook for Litigants in Person is written by Lucy Reed, barrister and author of the Pink Tape blog. A title that may, on its first reading, strike fear into the heart of family lawyers and, hopefully, give a sense of relief to many litigants in person. However, this is the book that all family practitioners wish they had written and which litigants in person may consider buying, its aim being to make any interaction with the Family Courts, for the uninitiated, as stress free as possible.

The book is described as providing “as practical tool to help you in court and a reference to help you understand what happens in family proceedings, whether or not you have a lawyer”. It does not suggest going to court as a litigant in person is to be preferred over attending at court with a lawyer, nor does it suggest the opposite; it allows the reader freedom of choice.

It is made clear very early on in the book that reading it “is not the same as legal advice” and “whilst this book may be a reasonable alternative to legal advice where you cannot afford a lawyer, it is not a substitute for it”. The reader is also asked to consider, where possible for that particular case, alternative forms of dispute resolution and draws attention to a number of internet resources that may prove useful in the circumstances of a family breakdown.

The book is divided into seven parts; Part 1 explains how the court and legal system fit together, Part 2 gives general practical guidance about courts, court procedure and general tips as to how to manage the case, Parts 3,4 and 5 each deal with particular types of case (Divorce, Separation and Finances, Children and Domestic Violence and Abuse), Part 6 deals with some of the events that may happen latterly in a case and Part 7 provides a “Toolkit”, which includes a “jargon buster”, statutory extracts, a table of case law and example documents. I think Ms Reed was very aware of the practicalities that need to be complied with and potential difficulties that could be encountered with any engagement with the Family Court process.

Ms Reed deals head on with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the fact that this brings the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law and draws attention to Article 6 (right to a fair trial), Article 8 (right to private and Family Life), Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and Article 14 (right to freedom from discrimination) as being those which most often arise in Family Courts.

She goes onto explain the “balancing of rights” exercise carried out by the court in what, I hope are understandable terms to non-lawyers;

Generally Human Rights are not absolute rights – this means they must be balanced against other people’s human rights, and as a result sometimes your rights must give way to someone else’s , most often a child’s. They are best thought of as principles to guide the Court’s approach about these really important rights, rather than hard and fast rules.

The Justice Select Committee’s report on the Operation of the Family Courts is understandably not included in this book, as it was only published in the last few weeks. The report says that legal aid reforms as proposed in The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill risk an unmanageable rise in “DIY justice”, as vulnerable people are forced to go to family courts alone as litigants in person. The Report states “the family courts will see an increase in litigants in person following reforms to the legal aid system”, with the Committee adding that it is “not convinced the Ministry of Justice has fully appreciated the impact on court resources of many more unrepresented parties.”

Whether or not the Committee’s Report has an effect on the progression of The Legal Aid Bill, upon which Parliament is currently hearing, is yet to be seen, but I for one remain concerned that although the availability of Ms Reed’s book offers its reader the freedom of choice between having a lawyer or appearing as a litigant in person in the family courts, if the Bill becomes law in its current form, that choice may potentially disappear for large numbers of people.

This review is by Rachael Claridge who practises in family law at 1 Crown Office Row.

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