More people are coming to court without legal representation and may not do themselves justice, the head of the Northern Ireland judiciary has warned.
They are typically on modest incomes but fall outside the scope for publicly-funded aid which pays for solicitors and barristers for the least well-off, lord chief justice Sir Declan Morgan said.
Around 30% of some types of cases taken to the Court of Appeal involved those unrepresented by lawyers, a recent survey suggested.
Sir Declan said: “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.”
Newly-qualified lawyers finding it difficult to get work could step in to explain to those representing themselves how to make their case and help identify issues to be considered by the judge, according to the senior legal figure.
“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,” he said.
Stormont’s Justice Department recently proposed further cuts to civil legal aid.
A spokesman for the department said: “The levels of expenditure on legal aid are not sustainable and the justice minister’s reforms will drive down the cost without harming access to justice.”
The Law Society, which represents solicitors, has claimed the real social impact of the changes has not been outlined and warned that key areas of legal advice and representation will be closed to those who need help.
The representative body stressed the need to ensure representation for victims of domestic violence, those in financial difficulties, members of broken families and a fair trial for all.
Sir Declan said many who represent themselves before a judge have never been in court before.
They may not know where to sit, when to speak, what issues the judge will consider, what knowledge of the case the judge has and how they should deal with the opposing party - often represented by a lawyer.
The lord chief justice referred to a guide prepared to his office for those coming to the High Court but accepted that it only underlines the challenges faced by personal litigants and it is not realistic to assume that members of the public can be turned into lawyers overnight.
Sir Declan also referred to the excellent support provided by the Housing Rights Service, the Law Centre and Citizen’s Advice Bureau to help those coming to court and said perhaps more can be done to help organisations that are helping others.
He suggested personal litigants could benefit from access to legal assistants who could explain how to make their case and help identify the issues.
That service could be provided by newly-qualified lawyers who are under-employed or finding it difficult to get work.
He recognised there would be a cost but felt this would be modest in the context of the legal aid budget.
The senior judge conceded assistants could not compensate for the advantages of having full legal representation by established firms of solicitors and experienced counsel.