Belfast Telegraph

Newly qualified lawyers could help 'overwhelmed' litigants

Newly qualified lawyers could act as legal assistants to the increasing number of personal litigants "overwhelmed" by the courtroom experience, Northern Ireland's most senior judge said today.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan suggested barristers or solicitors struggling to get work would be able to explain cases to those without representation.

In an address marking the start of the new legal year, he also called for more to be done to help organisations such as the Housing Rights Service, the Law Centre and Citizens Advice Bureaus as they provide support to people coming to court in the worst personal circumstances.

The number of personal litigants has increased as they fall outside the scope of legal aid yet find themselves unable to afford the services of a solicitor.

Sir Declan pointed out that many have never been in a court before and may not know where to sit, when to speak, the issues to be considered or how to deal with an opposing party.

"By the time that they come face-to-face with the judge, they may be so overwhelmed that they do not do themselves justice, no matter what the level of patience and understanding shown by the judge," he said.

The Lord Chief Justice recognised it was not his function to create policy, but suggested personal litigants could benefit from access to legal assistants able to explain how to make their case. 

He said the service could be provided by newly qualified lawyers either under-employed or finding it difficult to get work. 

Sir Declan acknowledged there would be at a cost but felt it would be modest in the context of the legal aid budget.

Legal assistants could not compensate for having full legal representation by experienced solicitors and counsel, he accepted.

But he cautioned: "There is a danger that in finding an answer to the problem of limited resources, we examine only the stark choices of having or not having full legal representation and lose focus on the other ways in which we can provide some help to those coming before the courts."

With the theme of his address in Belfast being access to justice, Sir Declan spoke of promoting more partnership and collaborative working.

He also cited his proposal to invite the Bar and the Law Society to participate in training for judges and the legal profession on the conduct of sex offence cases.

"Within an adversarial system, the defendant must have the right to fully test the prosecution case but the judge must ensure that this is not at the expense of a victim's entitlement to give their best evidence (to the jury)," he added.

"Managing that is ultimately for the judge to control.  But that should not prevent us examining with prosecution and defence lawyers, the guidance on how vulnerable complainants might be helped to give their best evidence and the methods by which the ability of the defendant to effectively challenge that evidence can both be secured.

"This can only be a positive thing for victims and for the administration of justice."

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