Q&A with Jess Mant
Cardiff University Lecturer, Jess Mant discusses what inspired her research on litigants in person in the family court.
What is your background in relation to research and litigants in person?
The reforms to legal aid which were implemented by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), came into force during my law degree. After I completed my studies, I continued to research the implications of this reform by conducting a PhD project with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) at the University of Leeds. For this project, I interviewed LIPs about their experiences of self-representing in private family law hearings, with a particular focus on how they experienced the court process and the accessibility of justice without access to legal advice or representation. I now lecture in family law and continue to research these issues and access to justice more broadly in my new position within the school of law and politics at Cardiff University. (https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/people/view/1223110-)
What inspired you to embark on this project?
The way in which cuts have been made to legal aid in private family matters has had a disproportionate effect on the most disadvantaged individuals in our society. Many parents who are contending with poverty, domestic abuse, health issues and learning difficulties are now faced with no option but to self-represent in these cases, and this experience can have a devastating effect on both them and their children. In the project, it was very clear that parents even with high levels of education struggled to fully participate in the court process, because it is simply not designed to be used by lay individuals who do not have access to proper help and advice. Further, the experiences of those who participated in the project exposed several barriers which may in practice be preventing many individuals from accessing the court process in the first place.
It really seems that this is a turning point for justice in England and Wales, in which both the government and the justice system must decide how to respond to these issues. My main motivation for doing this research was to try and highlight possible solutions to these problems, as well as emphasise the consequences for our society if the quality of justice that people are able to access depends on their ability to pay for it.
Was there one part of the project which had particular impact for you?
In embarking on the project and interviewing LIPs, I expected to hear some heart wrenching stories from parents who had not been able to effectively present their cases during court hearings. However, in practice, there was no way to prepare for the true impact that this reform has had for so many individuals. I met victims of domestic abuse who had been subjected to cross-examination by their perpetrators, individuals with disabilities who had no access to support in courtrooms, and many people who simply were unable to speak up when things went wrong during the court process. What was most concerning for me, was that many of the LIPs I interviewed who had received inappropriate outcomes explained that they were not willing to go back to court. Many of them said that they would not trust any forms of official authority in future, because they had been let down by the justice system.
What would you like to see happen in the future as a result of your research?
I know that it would be too optimistic to expect legal aid funding to fully match the need that exists. However, by highlighting the voices of those who are now navigating the system without this help, I hope that we can begin to think about some of the social implications of limited legal aid, rather than just the economic benefits of a smaller legal aid budget. By considering the aspects of the court process which are problematic for LIPs, we can also begin further research on how to invest in adapting the process for lay individuals – for example by looking at alternative courtroom formats, judicial training, inquisitorial approaches and the holistic provision of legal advice and assistance.
The most valuable tools we have are knowledge and collaboration. In the lead up to the Post-Implementation Review, many organisations and researchers are considering making submissions of evidence to the Ministry of Justice. It is essential that we – practitioners, researchers, organisation representatives, the judiciary – collaborate as much as possible in order to emphasise the problems, and potential solutions that LIPs experience in the post-LASPO era. While it is essential to push for change, sharing knowledge and experiences (for example through the LIP Network) is also important in the short-term, as it is only through awareness that we can begin to respond to the needs of LIPs, and help prevent them from falling through the now resounding gaps in provision.
You can access Jess Mant’s preliminary findings here
You can access Jess Mant’s preliminary findings here: Litigants in Person and the Family Court: The Accessibility of Private Family Justice After LASPO