Meet the Book Author: Litigants in Person and the Family Justice System

Jessica Mant, Monash University

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Jessica Mant, who’s new book Litigants in Person and the Family Justice System was published in November 2022 with Bloomsbury.

What is the book about? 

This book is about those who represent themselves as Litigants in Person in the family justice system. It draws together decades worth of international evidence on self-representation with the first-hand experiences of 23 parents who I interviewed about their experiences of going to the family court without a lawyer. By viewing the family justice system through the eyes of some of its users, the book explores the challenges and barriers that parents may face when they go to court in these circumstances. 

It argues that the family court system is simply not designed with Litigants in Person in mind, and shows the significant consequences that this has for access to justice and the future of family law. It calls for a refocusing of the debate about the historical challenges associated with Litigants in Person as well as the role they should play within the family justice system in England and Wales.

Why did I write it?

The presence of Litigants in Person in the family courts has been a longstanding issue in many common law countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, which all have significant proportions of self-representing parties in their justice systems. However, the inspiration for this book came from some significant changes to legal aid that took place in England and Wales in the last decade. In 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 removed the majority of private family law problems from scope for legal aid, meaning that most people dealing with such disputes are now unable to access free legal advice or representation in this jurisdiction. 

Although the then UK government’s expectation was that this would encourage parents to come to agreements without relying on lawyers or the legal system, the reality is that more people are struggling to access the support they need in order to avoid problems escalating to the point where court becomes necessary. Now, the vast majority of family court cases in England and Wales involve at least one Litigant in Person. When I started this research, there was little understanding of the long-term implications that this would have for access to justice and the sustainability of the family justice system in the UK. By exploring these implications in England and Wales, I intended for this book to be able to offer important insights that would address this gap and also be useful to other jurisdictions who have been grappling with similar questions for some time.

How did I go about doing this research?

I started this research by reviewing the range of existing research studies on self-representation that had already been undertaken in justice systems around the world. These studies clearly showed that, in most jurisdictions, a very high proportion of Litigants in Person in family courts are those with limited economic resources, mental health problems, disabilities, as well as those who do not speak English as a first language and who have experienced family violence and domestic abuse. The studies also gave a strong baseline insight into the difficulties that judges, lawyers, and other professionals working within family justice systems have when faced with the task of supporting Litigants in Person, especially in light of these different and often difficult circumstances. 

Using this knowledge as a foundation, I then built relationships with legal advice services, charities, and other support agencies to which people in these circumstances may turn. Through these networks, I connected with several parents who were willing to speak with me about their experiences of going to the family court. Their stories provided first-hand insights which not only deepened my understanding of these institutional problems, but also revealed the deeply personal and significant consequences of these problems for those who had no option but to rely on the family court. 

The most important research finding that struck me during this project was the extent to which people in these circumstances often find themselves in a position where they cannot access support at an early stage of their problem, which means that their problems can often get much worse and more complicated. For these parents, the family court is supposed to act as a safety net – providing much-needed intervention to help them to resolve problems and come to solutions that are safe and appropriate for both parents and the children involved. However, because the family court is not designed with these users in mind, the extent to which it can provide this support to Litigants in Person is ultimately limited. In fact, many legal professionals view Litigants in Person themselves as the problemcausing capacity issues in the justice system, which makes positive interactions and communication even more challenging.

This shows that the relationship between the family justice system and Litigants in Person requires more attention on a global scale. Rather than continuing to expect Litigants in Person to adapt to an unfamiliar system for which they are untrained and ill-equipped to navigate, family justice systems must be re-envisaged so that they are capable of both intervening to assist at an earlier stage of family law problem wherever possible, and supporting people through the court process whenever it becomes necessary.

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