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Lay users “must be at heart of court process”, says think tank

Blake: Lay people often confused

Greater efforts need to be made to put lay court users at the centre of the legal system so they understand the process, know what to expect, and can therefore participate fully, according to an influential justice think tank.

A JUSTICE working party chaired by retired High Court judge Sir Nicholas Blake QC and including lawyers, academics, and justice system professionals, urged in a report [1] that “culture change” was necessary, especially since the number of unrepresented people had expanded due to legal aid cuts.

It made 41 recommendations to remedy what it said was a “disconnection between professionals and lay users in court”.

These included HM Courts and Tribunals publishing more information so lay users knew what to expect from hearings and trials, the use of plain English by legal professionals, and other “reasonable adjustments” to process to shape the courts around the needs of lay users.

The report acknowledged a number of initiatives were underway, but insisted they were “piecemeal”.

Meanwhile, the range of lay participants in the justice system – whether parties, witnesses, jurors, or observers – was large. It observed: “Their… needs will vary widely case by case.”

Further: “Everyone is inherently vulnerable when faced with a legal problem, whether represented or not.”

The report concluded: “A two-way process is required: lay users need to understand what is happening in court and courts need to understand why the position of lay users, especially the unrepresented and vulnerable, needs thoughtful consideration and adjustment of practice.”

It added that legal professionals often only needed to make “small changes to big effect in their approach to conducting cases”.

Sir Nicholas said: “There are many good practices already operating in our courts and tribunals that seek to improve the effective participation of the public in their legal cases. Indeed, tribunals were established to enable unrepresented people to resolve their legal disputes.

“Yet there are repeated examples of lay people being confused, distressed and overwhelmed by how our justice system operates. We can and must do better.”

Andrea Coomber, director of JUSTICE, said: “Access to justice doesn’t stop at entry to the courtroom, but requires that lay people really understand and effectively participate in proceedings.

“Some of our recommendations require government investment to support and empower users, but most require small adjustment in the attitude and approach of lawyers and judges to put the needs of users at the centre of the process.

“We all know that courts are confusing and intimidating places for non-lawyers – it’s time we did something about it.”