Court support service under threat as Justice Department collects funds | legal assistance
A court support service that helps thousands of people who can’t afford a lawyer is under threat after it was stripped of government funding, the Guardian has learned.
The number of people fighting for justice without a lawyer has skyrocketed following drastic cuts in legal aid in 2013.
The Support Through Court charity has had basic funding from the Justice Department for the last eight years, but was told this would end at the end of the month. Formerly known as the Personal Support Unit, it has offices in 20 civil and family courts across England and Wales and uses volunteers to provide practical and emotional support to those finding their way through the justice system on their own.
It is one of several charities working with unrepresented persons in court whose funding is in doubt after the government ended its litigants strategy earlier this year. They have been told that there will be grants they can apply for in the future, but have no idea what they will be or what the timelines are.
With a £400,000 shortfall in its budget, Support Through Court is poised to launch an urgent fundraiser without risking redundancies and the closure of some of its offices.
Eileen Pereira, the charity’s chief executive, said: “Every day hundreds of people who do not have access to legal counsel walk into courthouses in need of support and advice and this is only going to increase as the cost of living rises. Without the funding we have received for eight years, we face the real possibility of closing the doors on the support we are providing to these people.
“Ending up closing one of our services would have a devastating impact, not just on the clients we serve but on the entire court system.”
In 2013, legal aid was withdrawn from most civil cases and almost all private family law cases. Since then, the proportion of private family law negotiations in which both parties have a lawyer has fallen to almost half to a fifth.
The most common scenario in private family hearings is that only one party has a lawyer, accounting for 42% of all cases last year. Legal experts say this creates an uneven playing field in disputes over issues such as access to children and financial segregation.
Alex Cunningham, the shadow secretary for courts, said: “Our courts are collapsing under overwhelming backlogs and that is entirely typical of the Tories’ short-sightedness and incompetence in running our justice system.
“Participating in court hearings can be an extremely stressful experience and courts operate more efficiently when parties are informed and supported throughout the process. Labor would start tackling the backlog and restore order to the criminal justice system.”
While 81% of all plaintiffs – such as debt collection companies – have an attorney, only 44% of defense attorneys are represented.
The President of the Law Society of England and Wales, I Stephanie Boyce, said: “Reductions in legal aid have resulted in more and more people having to represent themselves as litigants in court. What they need most is legal advice and representation, but court assistance offers practical and emotional support that can help them through stressful court hearings. It would be another blow to people trying to navigate the justice system if government funding for this important service were cut.”
The funding shortfall for specialist legal and advisory services is £17.5m for 2022-23, according to data collected by the Community Justice Fund.
A Justice Department spokesman said: “We want those who need it most to have access to early legal assistance and that charities will soon be able to apply for new grants to help even more people benefit from their services.” can benefit.”