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Survey of impact of COVID on family courts

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.

Here in Northern Ireland they are known as ‘litigants in person’ or ‘personal litigants.’

The Litigants in Person in Northern Ireland project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is in its second phase. The first phase was a qualitative research study that looked at people who were involved in civil or family court proceedings without representation by a lawyer. It took place from April 2016 to July 2018.

The first phase study, called ‘Litigants in person in Northern Ireland: barriers to legal participation,’ investigated the experiences of litigants in person (LIPs) to assess their access to justice rights, including 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. We made 40 recommendations to help change the situation that LIPs face in their legal proceedings.

The second phase of the work builds on some of the recommendations from the first study. It is called ‘Understanding and Supporting Legal Participation for Litigants in Person’ and it started in October 2019 with funds again from The Nuffield Foundation.

Findings so far


Watch the animation to learn about the results from the study ‘Litigants in Person in Northern Ireland: barriers to legal participation’ or read them in the links below.


A summary of research findings from the study ‘Litigants in Person in Northern Ireland: barriers to legal participation’ can be found here:

Five briefing papers cover essential topics about the study:

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.

Understanding and supporting legal participation for litigants in person

The second phase of the litigants in person in Northern Ireland project is about legal participation, which is an essential element of the right to a fair trial. Litigants should be able to participate effectively in their proceedings so they can influence the proceedings, and so allow the court to reach a just decision. The court has to rely on the LIP to be able to present his or her case effectively, i.e. participate effectively in the proceedings.

We have developed this website which provides information about making arrangements for children when parents cannot agree, either through court, where appropriate, or outside of court.

The findings from the first phase of the study show that there are multiple barriers faced by LIPs which interfere with their opportunity to participate effectively in their proceedings. We categorised the barriers as:

  • Intellectual - not understanding the process
  • Practical - not being able to access help or support
  • Emotional - the process itself generating frustration, upset, fear and anger
  • Attitudinal - being stereotyped as difficult to deal with

Phase one of the research shows that LIPs have to be able to overcome these barriers in order to meet the standard of effective participation required by the right to a fair trial as protected by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In phase one, we made many recommendations to improve legal participation, and two are key to lifting all four types of barrier:

  1. provision of information and support to LIPs
  2. change in the negative attitude towards LIPs and, correspondingly, the negative attitudes of many LIPs towards judges, lawyers and court staff.

The Nuffield Foundation has granted funds to act on these two recommendations, and also to produce a deeper understanding of the concept of effective legal participation, all in family cases. This second phase of the project is called Understanding and Supporting Legal Participation of Litigants in Person.

We are adopting a human-centred design approach to progress the two recommendations. This approach puts the people for whom the product, system or service is intended at the centre of the design process. It has been widely used in technology and design industries but only recently in designing legal solutions. We are working with champions in the field, Kari Boyle and Jane Morley, from the British Columbia Family Justice Innovation Lab in Canada.

Our human-centred design process is driven by persona of four LIPs. They are fictitious LIPs created from real LIP experiences. Their backgrounds, reasons for being unrepresented and court experiences are the focus of a series of design workshops.

A Design Group of 30 participants – solicitors, barristers, LIPs, mediators, family counsellors, psychologists, court staff, justice department officials, social workers, advice agencies, McKenzie Friends and computer scientists – work in small groups to ‘get inside the shoes’ of their persona to understand and feel what it is like to be unrepresented in a family case. Seeing the proceedings from a LIP’s perspective puts them in a position to suggest potential solutions for reform.

The ideas suggested by the Design Group will be developed by industry professionals into prototypes for testing and improving. We hope they will be ready for use by LIPs in the Northern Ireland courts by March 2020. Then we can assess their influence on effective legal participation.

The composition of this Design Group is intentional. All of them have experience of people going through family break-down through in the courts. People from one sector may meet others from a different sector, but rarely do they spend time on a shared activity with equal weight given to their input. We want to see whether the human-centred design approach can open minds to other perspectives. Can it reveal aspects of the LIP journey that were not known to court actors? Does it allow LIPs to see the procedural or technical obstacles that stand in the way of reform? Can it build a shared vision of what can and should be changed?

The other part of this study aims for a deeper understanding of legal participation. As a key component to the right to a fair trial, the concept of legal participation will be explored using anonymised data collected in the first phase of the project. A checklist or descriptive framework will be developed for use by court-room observers to gauge whether a LIP is participating in proceedings sufficiently to influence them or is in need of support or referral.

All of the above activities are intended to meet the aims of the second study which are:

  1. Model, evaluate and build support for a multi-stakeholder human-centred design process in the legal context.
  2. Identify, design and produce supports for Family Proceedings litigants.
  3. Evaluate the usability, efficacy and impact on efficiency of the supports.
  4. Evaluate the human-centred design approach as a means of changing negative attitudes and building empathy with or understanding of different perspectives.
  5. Understand better legal participation of personal litigants in Family Proceedings.

The study Understanding and Supporting Legal Participation for Litigants in Person runs from October 2019 to December 2021.


The current research team is from the School of Law, Ulster University:

Research team members in earlier phases were:

  • Dr Eleanor Kirk – Research Associate, Ulster University
  • Mr Les Allamby - Chief Commissioner of Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
  • Ms Rhyannon Blythe - NIHRC
  • Ms Sara Donnelly - NIHRC

Our funder

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

Read more about why this funder helped our research

The research team works in close collaboration with the major stakeholders of the project: litigants, 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.

Contact us

If you would like to know more about the research, please get in touch with Gráinne, Lucy, John, Mark or Deborah on

Call on +44(0)28 9036 8447.