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Students cannot be expected to do experienced lawyers’ work

Simon Hughes MP calls for law students to guide separating couples through the divorce process

28 April 2014

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Simon Hughes MP calls for law students to guide separating couples through the divorce process

Students and trainee lawyers could be called in to provide help to litigant in persons (LiPs) going through the divorce process on their own under new proposals outlined by the justice minister.

Hughes said the aspiring lawyers would be drafted in to "hold the hands" of divorcing couples, "talk through the issues" and "sort out the clutter in their [LiP's] mind".

Ministers are reportedly planning a network of advice centres staffed by students to guide civil litigants before they stand up in court.

However, students and solicitors think that the scheme works better in theory than in practice.

"Any help that can be provided is not to be sniffed at," said Jo Edwards, chair of national family lawyers' association Resolution. "The reality is this is complex stuff that needs specialist's advice from qualified professionals."

Danielle Collett-Bruce, NQ solicitor at Hart Brown, said that while on her family seat during her training contract, she would not have felt comfortable with providing unchecked legal advice to members of the public.

"Not only would I have felt out of my depth, but experienced practitioners are still trying to understand the changes and I think it is unfair to expect young lawyers, whether in practice or not, to try to give a good level of advice," she said.

About half of those going through divorce are reportedly going to court with disputes and appearing as LiPs as they are not eligible for legal aid funding. The government is now insisting that all separating couples consider mediation, which is a fraction of the cost compared to taking a case to court.


'Irresponsible government'

"This is a poor attempt to cover gaps in the legal system, which have widened due to legal aid cuts. While students and trainees might be keen for the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of litigation in court, it is irresponsible of the government to think that, in the capacity of 'hand-holding' guides, they will be able to support litigants in person to the same standard as a trained lawyer or legal advisor.

"Family law cases can be extremely sensitive, complex and emotional, and the parties need as much support and high quality assistance as they can get. Sending in students to do the job of an adviser or legal professional is not likely to be adequate.

"What happens when unsupervised students give unauthorised or negligent advice? What difficulties will arise if they are unable to understand court documents or procedures? And how will the parties feel about disclosing their most private issues with young, inexperienced university students?

"The government needs to come up with a better solution."

Charlotte Morgan is studying the GDL at the University of Law

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