Meeting the information needs of litigants in person

The Ministry of Justice has announced funding to support people who have to represent themselves in court, so-called ‘litigants in person’. It is clear that this funding can’t fill the gap left by cuts to legal aid and it will take time to develop a national service, but the focus on the needs of litigants in person (LiPs)  is very welcome.

Against this background the publication of the report ‘Meeting the information needs of litigants in person’, commissioned by the Civil Justice Council from Law for Life’s Advicenow team is very timely. This report follows the 2011 Civil Justice Council  report ‘Access to Justice for Litigants in Person’.

View the report:  Meeting the information needs of litigants in person

The report makes three key recommendations:

  • Put litigants in person at the centre of legal information production
  • Fill topic gaps by producing effective LiP focused materials
  • Build the capacity and expertise of those involved in producing public legal information

The first recommendation to put litigants in person at the centre of legal information production sounds obvious, but it will require a significant shift in thinking. Previously, court forms and documents were aimed mainly at lawyers and so could assume an understanding of court processes and legal terminology. Clearly this is not the case with self-represented litigants and means information has to be built around what they need to know and address the barriers they face.

The report backs up this recommendation with a detailed set of proposals about how it can be achieved. Court forms and guidance must be easier to identify and find. Guidance should state clearly what LiPs need to know and be able to do, and deal with the difficulties they experience. Information materials should be well designed and use a variety of presentation techniques to get their message across. Also judges and court staff need guidance on sources of information and further help for litigants in person.

Perhaps most important of all, materials should be produced with the involvement of users, and their effectiveness should be systematically evaluated to ensure they are working well.

There have been some excellent initiatives to provide information for self-represented litigants and the report builds on these to make detailed recommendations of the different types of information that should be produced. Specifically, there is a need for overview guides on key issues like the role of the court / judge, directions and orders, evidence, and costs, together with ‘How to’ guides on key skills like how to cross examine, how to prepare your case, how to deal with evidence. There is also a need to address ‘soft’ issues like keeping calm and maintaining confidence and objectivity, and for a glossary of key concepts and jargon to be use alongside other legal information.

Writing information for the public is very different from writing for lawyers. The third recommendation highlights the need for those involved in designing and writing information for litigants in person to have the necessary expertise, including awareness of gaps in knowledge and the specific issues which cause people problems. There’s a clear need for partnerships and collaborations between the courts and organisations working with litigants in person.

Survey of judges

Law for Life’s Advicenow team carried out online surveys with 182 judges, litigants in person and organisations which have produced information for litigants in person.   It also reviewed best practice from other sectors and a wide range of other jurisdictions around the world.

The responses from judges, all of which are included in the report,  highlight the breadth of challenges faced by litigants in person. Including the need to understand the role of the court, to be able to speak succinctly and confidently, applying the law to their case, and understand legal language.

‘Provision of forms is the foundational task of every program that begins to provide assistance for persons representing themselves. It is the first resource requested by litigants. While necessary for litigants to assert their rights, forms by themselves are not sufficient to ensure that self-represented litigants will be able to assert those rights effectively. The forms must be part of a more comprehensive process that provides accessible, understandable information about topics related to the person’s legal issue, including substantive and procedural instruction that assist persons in completing the forms they need to use.’

J M Greacen, Resources to assist self-represented litigants: A fifty-state review of the ‘State of the Art’

 

‘Use plain language no matter what the reader’s educational level. Contrary to my original theory, as the level increased, so did the respondent’s preference for plain language. So this study helps dispel the notion that higher-educated people will not mind traditional legal language. They do mind. They know better. All readers do.’

Christopher Trudeau, the Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication

 

‘Complex practice and procedure is not made intelligible to the average lay person merely by the removal of Latin and legal jargon and the use of short sentences. The text needs to be written, or at least closely reviewed, by those with a day to day experience and understanding of the way in which litigants in person approach the courts.’

Chancery Modernisation Review – Lord Justice Briggs

 A strategy for the future

The report goes well beyond just making the case for re-thinking the way information for litigants in person is produced. It includes considerable detail of how this could be done and provides the basis of an information strategy for the future.

View the report: Meeting the information needs of litigants in person

 

Published: 28 October 2014

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