Our litigant in person research

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’ or ‘personal litigants’ – LIPs.

The Nuffield Foundation has funded research in Northern Ireland from 2016-2023, examining how people who go to civil or family court without a lawyer are able to participate in their court hearings.

The research, conducted by a team of researchers at Ulster University School of Law led by Professor Gráinne McKeever, resulted in the publication of four reports, including one during the pandemic on the impact of COVID-19 on family courts in Northern Ireland.

The initiative responded to a gap in research and policy on LIPs in Northern Ireland. An Access to Justice Review, published by the Department of Justice in 2015 included a focus on LIPs. The Review recommended that the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS), in consultation with the Northern Ireland judiciary, develop an action plan to facilitate access to justice for litigants in person. It did not, however, establish whether litigants in person were experiencing barriers in accessing justice or the extent to which this might be the case. No empirical data was available to assess whether there were any specific risks which might block the access to justice rights for litigants in person.

In Northern Ireland, as in all jurisdictions of the UK, LIPs have the right to access a public legal system and to do so directly through self-representation. This does not dilute their human right to a fair trial and if the legal system disadvantages them for representing themselves then reform is needed.

The legal system has evolved over many years, proving its ability to adapt to changing circumstances, including the adaptions that are beginning to be made for litigants in person. The reports build on the strength of the legal system to meet the access to justice needs of its users, providing evidence-based recommendations of how it should continue to develop in relation to litigants in person.

A Policy Briefing summarising the research and the policy developments is also available.

Read the Policy Briefing

Family Court Information in Northern Ireland

Information resources for separating parents.


The main findings from each report are set out here.

This video presents the results from the study.

Barriers to legal participation


LIPs face barriers in being able to participate in their court hearings that put their right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) at risk.

These barriers are defined as:

  • Intellectual – these relate to the limits of knowledge and understanding of legal issues by LIPs, regardless of their efforts to prepare;
  • Practical – these concern the difficulties LIPs face in obtaining information, advice and resources;
  • Emotional – these describe the negative emotions and high levels of anxiety that LIPs experience in the litigation process;
  • Attitudinal – these reflect unrealistic expectations that LIPs can fit into the court system without any system adjustments required.

This research was produced with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

Download Barriers to legal participation (PDF)

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Family Courts in Northern Ireland


When courts moved online due to COVID-19, NICTS developed LIP-specific court forms and hearing guidance.

This was a positive step but the overall experience for LIPs was that they did not feel the court system treated them fairly due to delays in getting court hearings and contact with children, and the difficulty of participating in remote hearings.

Specific problems arose for LIPs where there were inconsistent approaches to facilitating McKenzie Friends in hearings, inconsistencies in communications between court offices and LIPs, and where the intended support planned for LIPs was not delivered in practice.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Family Courts in Northern Ireland

Using human-centred design to develop empathy and supports for litigants in person


The central barrier that LIPs face in being able to participate in hearings is attitudinal (the expectation that LIPs can fit into the system).

A process known as user- or human-centred design (HCD) can, through empathy, counter negative attitudes held against and by LIPs by involving multiple stakeholders in developing supports for people going to court.

In testing this process the research also created a public information website on Family Court Information in Northern Ireland and an online navigation tool to help identify the appropriate route litigants would need to take for their particular circumstances.

The Full HCD report Executive Summary of the HCD report

The ten descriptors of legal participation – a Q methods study


Mapping the legal requirements of Article 6 ECHR against the lived experiences of LIPs, the research produced a set of 10 descriptors of participation, using Q methodology.

These descriptors identify what needs to happen in practice to meet the legal standard of participation, to prevent breaches from happening.

The descriptors are relevant to each stage of the litigation process, from being able to find and understand relevant court forms to the work judges need to do to ensure LIPs understand what is happening in their hearing.

Full Report of the ten descriptors Executive Summary of the ten descriptors


The overall recommendations from these reports can be summarised as follows:

  1. Cultural change is required across the court system to debunk the expectation that LIPs should be able to fit into the existing system.
  2. There is a need to audit systems in which LIPs engage, both as a risk assessment measure and as means of identifying the most effective adaptations that would ensure the court system meets the legal standards required under Article 6 ECHR their hearing.
  3. Change processes should use multi-stakeholder, co-production approaches. Human-centred design has proved to be a highly effective form of co-production to support LIPs, both to enable buy-in and to develop responsive and sustainable solutions.
  4. Human-centred design is recommended for tackling both small scale and wicked legal problems.
  5. There should be system-wide consideration of LIPs to ensure their differences to legally represented litigants are acknowledged and acted upon. This can be broken down into discrete elements and would include:
  6. Identifying LIPs in the system in real-time and capturing data on their protected characteristics and case duration.
  7. Adaptations to court forms to increase accessibility, for example: renaming court forms to reflect their purpose; auditing content for compliance with plain English and disability requirements; language translations; online submission options; document assembly of form templates.
  8. Developing litigation information supports, including more navigation tools for other business areas, and promoting these supports to LIPs by including the relevant weblink as standard in correspondence with all litigants.
  9. Awareness raising, training and supportive resources on managing cases with LIPs for judiciary, legal representatives, and court staff.
  10. An aide-memoire for judges setting out the operational indicators of participation in court hearings, combined with training to promote consistency in dealing with LIPs.
  11. Practice Direction for judges, legal representatives, Children’s Court Officers, McKenzie Friends and LIPs outlining expectations of procedure, behaviour and case management where there is a LIP.
  12. Co-produced Charter of Rights and Responsibilities and/or professional guidelines and a code of practice which all court actors and LIPs are bound by when at least one party is unrepresented.
  13. Online case management supports including LIP access to case documents and e-bundles.
  14. Review scheduling practices for LIP hearings.
  15. There is a need for ongoing monitoring, evaluation and development of initiatives to promote LIPs' participation, from generalised support through to personalised support via unbundled legal services.
  16. Future research – including government funded research – should be directed towards filling knowledge and evidence gaps of broader access to justice concerns.


The research team members:

  • Chief Investigator – Professor Gráinne McKeever, Professor of Law and Social Justice
  • Dr John McCord, Lecturer in Law
  • Dr Lucy Royal-Dawson, Research Associate
  • Dr Priyamvada Yarnell, former Research Associate
  • Mr Mark Potkewitz, former Director of the Legal Innovation Centre
  • Ms Deborah Coey, former Clerical Assistant
  • Dr Eleanor Kirk, former Research Associate
  • Mr Les Allamby, former Chief Commissioner of Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
  • Ms Rhyannon Blythe, former Legal Advisor NIHRC
  • Ms Sara Donnelly, former Legal Advisor NIHRC

Our funder

The Nuffield Foundation

The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social wellbeing in the widest sense.

It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research.

The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.

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