A charity that supports litigants in person (LiPs) is having to close branches despite the promise of extra cash for such services in the Legal Support Action Plan, published in February last year following the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).1Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, Ministry of Justice, February 2019.
In 2019, Support Through Court
(STC) provided help to LiPs at 19 courts outside London. In the capital, it ran services in six courts. In its December 2019 newsletter
, the charity announced that, due to funding shortages, three services were to close while a fourth had been rescued but would be run as a volunteer-led service.
In the Sunday Times
, the president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, appealed to law firms to donate cash to support the charity, formerly known as the Personal Support Unit (PSU).2Nicholas Hellen, ‘Judge begs for donations to ease family courts crisis’, Sunday Times, 9 February 2019.
Nearly 60 per cent of the 75,000 cases STC dealt with in 2018/19 were family ones.3Court based personal support: report and financial statements for the year ended 31 March 2019, STC, 7 February 2019, page 7.
McFarlane told the newspaper that ‘[t]he family courts are currently experiencing the highest recorded volume of private law cases’ and that ‘many of these now involve litigants in person’.
Private law family cases were cut from legal aid by LASPO and the government has acknowledged that this has contributed to an increase in LiPs before the courts.4See March 2019 Legal Action 7.
As far back as 2014, the coalition government committed extra cash to support charities working with LiPs, including the PSU, in response to the impact of the LASPO changes.5John Hyde, ‘Hughes pledges £1.4m a year to help LIPs’, Law Society Gazette, 23 October 2014.
LAG had understood that a further cash boost was pledged at the beginning of last year as part of the LASPO review.6See March 2019 Legal Action 3.
According to the Legal Support Action Plan, a budget of £1.5m a year (until March 2021) was allocated to ‘double’ the availability of support services for LiPs.7Legal support: the way ahead, page 26.
Eileen Pereira, STC’s CEO, told Legal Action that it had to close the Preston branch in December 2019. The Bournemouth branch will close next month along with the one in Southampton. Pereira explained that while the West London Family Court service had also been earmarked for closure, STC was now able to keep this open due to the ‘amazing support from the volunteers, justices and HMCTS at the court’. She said that the organisation had had to ‘restructure as [its] financial projections clearly showed a downturn in finances by 2021’. She added: ‘As a charity, we have a responsibility to ensure our reserves remain at a reasonable level.’
According to the STC’s latest annual report, its grant from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) increased from £539,139 in 2018 to £723,971 last year.8Court based personal support: report and financial statements for the year ended 31 March 2019, page 30.
Pereira said that this was due to a project for victims of domestic violence and was not related to the LASPO review announcement. According to Pereira, under 40 per cent of the charity’s funding is derived from the MoJ’s grants. It has a team of eight staff dedicated to fundraising from firms, individuals and trusts.
‘It is a sorry state of affairs that, due to legal aid cuts, the family courts have to be propped up by charitable services to keep running,’ said LAG’s interim director, Carol Storer. ‘What is even more infuriating is that the government pledged extra support for litigants in person but has sat on the cash for a year while services are forced to close.’