Litigants in person in Northern Ireland

Many people who are involved in legal proceedings do not have legal representation – they bring or defend the case by themselves.

They are known as ‘litigants in person’.

The Litigants in Person in Northern Ireland study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, looked at people who were involved in civil or family proceedings without representation by a lawyer.

The study investigated the experiences of litigants in person (LIPs) to assess their access to justice rights. This examined the right of LIPs to a fair trial. It also tested a model of providing advice on legal procedures to LIPs to see whether it was effective.

From September 2016 to August 2017, data from people who took part in the research study were collected in civil and family courts in Northern Ireland. The participants included 179 LIPs and 59 people who work or assist within the court system. The research analyses qualitative and quantitative data collected from these participants and the results are pre­sented in the main report and the summary report.

Latest Reports

The research was launched at a conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 14 September 2018 and the conference presentations are available here:

Additional presentations on the research findings as they have been developed are also available:

Listen to Professor Gráinne McKeever’s interview on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra about the research

Research aims

There are five questions we would like to answer.

  1. Who are litigants in person in Northern Ireland? Working with the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, we aim to describe the population characteristics of litigants in person.
  2. What is it like to bring a civil or family case without legal representation in Northern Ireland? By interviewing litigants in person involved in cases, we would like to describe the route and reasons why people end up without representation, the support services available and used, the degree of participation in court proceedings and what helps or hinders litigants in person. We are limiting our research to cases related to civil bills, divorce, bankruptcy, family proceedings, and family homes and domestic violence.
  3. What is the impact of litigants in person on the Northern Ireland court system?
    By observing court hearings and interviewing litigants, court staff, lawyers and judges, we aim to describe the difficulties that courts face when litigants are not represented in a case. We will look at the duration and number of hearings, the challenge to perceptions of impartiality when judges assist litigants in person, and the frustration and delay caused to represented parties.
  4. How does advice on completing paperwork and court procedure help litigants in person?
    This is an experimental strand in the research. From January – June 2017, we would like to offer some litigants advice on procedure in court hearings (but not on legal merits or other legal advice). By interviewing litigants in person before and after their hearing, we aim to make recommendations on practical support for litigants in person.
  5. Are there any threats to the human right to a fair trial when litigating in person?

    This final strand of the research will comment on compliance with the right to a fair trial, as protected by Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, when litigating in person.

People

The research team is from the School of Law, Ulster University and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission:

Ulster University School of Law

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

  • Chief Investigator – Mr Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner
  • Ms Rhyannon Blythe
  • Ms Sara Donnelly, Legal Analyst.

Our funder

Funds for the research were granted by the Nuffield Foundation, which is a UK charitable association which supports social and education research.

The research team works in close collaboration with the major stakeholders of the project: the Department of Justice, in particular Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, the judiciary, advisory bodies, the voluntary sector and bodies representing legal counsel.

The project is guided by our Advisory Board comprising individuals from the major stakeholders.

Want to be involved?

If you would like to know more about the research, please get in touch with Lucy or John on LIPNI@ulster.ac.uk.

Call on 028 903 66564 or text or call on 07503 447886.

Who can take part?

  1. Litigants in person

    We would like to meet and interview people who are bringing or defending a case without legal representation.

    They may have had legal representation at some stage or are looking into getting it, but currently they do not have any.

    They may be at the start or in the middle of their case. We are looking at the following legal business areas: civil bills, divorce, bankruptcy, family proceedings and family homes and domestic violence.
  2. Lawyers who are involved in a case with a litigant in person

    We would like to hear the views of solicitors and barristers who are involved in a civil or family case which has a litigant in person. We are looking at the following legal business areas: civil bills, divorce, bankruptcy, family proceedings and family homes and domestic violence.

    We would like to hear the views of barristers and solicitors on their experience of litigating when there is a litigant in person in opposition.
  3. Court staff and judges

    We will also approach court staff and judges directly to ask if they would be interviewed about their experience of litigants in person and their impact on the court system.

What will participants be asked to do?

First of all we will explain the project to those who are interested in taking part.

We will ask for their consent to take part.

Litigants in person
  • Participants will be asked to complete a short questionnaire about themselves. It will take about 10 minutes.
  • The questions are about their background and home situation, and experience of litigating without representation.
  • Then they will be interviewed for 20-30 minutes in more depth about their experience of litigating, and also about the support they have received and their views on what could be done to make legal proceedings easier for them.
  • We will ask to make a recording of the interview so that we can listen to it again after the interview.
  • Starting in 2017, we will offer some participants an information session about completing paperwork and court proceedings. This will likely be for people who have a case related to family proceedings.
  • These people will be asked for a second, shorter interview to find out what happened after their hearing and whether the procedural information was useful to them.
  • Interviews will be conducted at the court building at a time convenient for the participant.
Lawyers, court staff and judges
  • Participants will be interviewed about their views and experience of litigation without representation.
  • They will be asked for their suggestions on what can be done to help litigants in person and what can be done to alleviate some of the pressure on courts.
  • The interview will take about 20-30 minutes.
  • We will ask to make a recording of the interview so that we can listen to it again after the interview.

What benefits are there for taking part?

Involvement in the research study does not bring any personal benefits to the participants.

There is no payment or anything else to give the participants for their time and effort.

However, by taking part in a research study which will make recommendations for improving the justice system, participants will be contributing to the wider community.

What happens to the information we collect ?

All information we collect will be stored securely. In the summer of 2017, we will analyse it and report on the findings.

No names of the participants will be in the report and it will not be possible to identify any of the participants in it. It will be published and circulated to the relevant stakeholders, such as the Department of Justice.

We will also convene a conference to discuss the findings.

We aim to develop recommendations for future practice in the court systems for litigants in person.

What safeguards are in place?

The research project has been assessed by the Ulster University Research Ethics Committee [LINK] and judged to comply with ethical standards for conducting research with human subjects. This means we are required to obtain the free and informed consent of all participants who join the study.

We have to keep the identity of all participants anonymous and ensure the information they give us is kept confidential. We have to ensure the safety, well-being, rights and dignity of participants are safeguarded, and that we respect the diversity and vulnerability of participants.

Second, participants are free to join and free to withdraw from the study.

Third, we are mindful that the participants are going through a difficult and distressing stage of their lives. Taking part in the research should not be an additional burden. To this end, we will make our interactions with them as light and rapid as possible, but also be vigilant of their state of health and mind.

More about this topic

Guides on Litigating in Person

Previous research related to litigants in person

Contact us

If you would like to know more about the research, please get in touch with Lucy or John on LIPNI@ulster.ac.uk.

Call on 028 903 66564 or text or call on 07503 447886.