Let unemployed graduates represent litigants in person, says Master of the Rolls

Unemployed graduates could help represent litigants in person (LiPs), Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton has said.

Litigants in person are an increasingly common feature of the legal landscape in the UK, as legal aid cuts mean many people cannot afford legal representation. The Law Society, Bar Council and CILEx have needed to publish guidelines for lawyers on how to deal with people who represent themselves in court.

Law students have previously been touted as potential advisers to LiPs, including former justice minister Simon Hughes, while academics in the United States have designed an online game to help people with no lawyer represent themselves in court.

In a speech at the LawWorks pro bono awards, Sir Terence Etherton said that universities, pro bono advice centres and law firms should collaborate to train up graduates who have not secured a training contract or pupillage.

They would work out of universities or legal advice clinics, guiding those without legal training through court proceedings.

“Should we not consider how we can do two things: facilitate entry into practice of these law graduates and while so doing provide legal advice and assistance to LiPs?” he asked. “This answer to that question seems obvious. The real question, in fact, seems to me to be how do we do this, and not should we do this.”

Sir Terence Etherton’s remarks in full

My starting point here is two features of our justice system: an over-supply of law graduates who, having expended a significant amount of money on academic and vocational education, do not enter into practice.

They do not do so due to the mis-match between supply and demand, due to fewer numbers of pupillages and training contracts than those seeking them. And they do not do so despite being qualified and willing to practice; and, secondly the increase in litigants-in-person as a consequence of the withdrawal of legal aid.

Should we not consider how we can do two things: facilitate entry into practice of these law graduates and while so doing provide legal advice and assistance to LiPs? This answer to that question seems obvious. The real question, in fact, seems to me to be how do we do this, and not should we do this.

One approach we could take, and this would need detailed consideration, might well be as follows. The starting point would be collaboration between universities, pro bono advice centres and organisations, and law firms to create an expanded advice scheme.

There are several examples of university law clinics, of which Kent University’s award winning clinic is a prime example, which show how such collaboration can work well. Increased collaboration would build on such schemes and on the expertise of pro bono advice centres.

It would do so by increasing the number of law graduates, those who have completed both the academic and vocational stage of qualification but not secure pupillage or training contracts, who would be able to provide legal advice to LiPs.

They would do so as trainees registered with the university or pro bono advice centre. They would only be able to do so following training, akin to that already given by such organisations, and they would be supervised by lawyers. The lawyer supervisors would be both those who are permanent employees of the university’s legal advice centre or a pro bono advice centre, where there are such, and/or lawyers provided by law firms and chambers on a pro bono basis.

From the university perspective, such a development could be incorporated into their courses where they offered vocational courses, making them more attractive to prospective students. From the pro bono advice sector’s perspective, it could increase the number of advisors available to them.

The second aspect of such an approach would require collaboration between the judiciary, the legal profession including the regulators, and the government.

Having increased the availability of free legal advice through stage one of the process, there seems to me to be scope for increasing the availability of free legal representation in respect of some court proceedings. This would enable LiPs to be represented by law graduates who are taking part in the expanded advice scheme. Care would need to be taken to identify the nature and type of proceedings covered by the scheme.