Belfast Telegraph

Personal litigants offered advice

People opting to represent themselves in civil court cases in Northern Ireland are set to be offered free legal advice under a proposed pilot scheme, the region's senior judge has said.

The initiative would help those who are not eligible for legal aid yet do not feel able to pay for a lawyer, according to the Lord Chief Justice.

In his annual address to mark the opening of the legal year, Sir Declan Morgan said the number of people representing themselves - personal litigants - was on the increase. He said this may be due to cost issues or simply because they feel able to present their own case.

Sir Declan welcomed discussions between the Bar Council and Law Society about setting up a "pro bono" pilot scheme that would provide advice on practice and procedure to those involved in High Court litigation. He said young lawyers, in particular, could gain experience through the scheme.

Typical proceedings involving personal litigants include repossessions, bankruptcies and divorces.

Sir Declan said: "Pro bono is an established part of the legal world elsewhere. It offers valuable experience to young lawyers as well as those with more experience.

"Most importantly, it is a route to access to justice for those who could otherwise face real problems. I am excited by the potential for pro bono work in Northern Ireland and look forward to working with the profession to see how it might be developed here."

In his address to colleagues, Sir Declan said the legal landscape faced challenges to the way it operates from the financial crisis, developments in technology and the public's changing expectations. He stressed the importance of judges dealing with each case fairly and promptly according to law.

He said: "Everyone who comes to court must be able to trust that the judge is independent of government and impartial between the parties. Those are the fundamental components of the rule of law and an independent judiciary is there for the benefit of the community, not that of the judges themselves."

Sir Declan said that public confidence in the justice system required understanding and engagement, and he welcomed initiatives over the past year to promote it. He said he was determined that the judiciary should interact with the community they serve to the greatest extent possible.

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