The contention that the growing legion of litigants-in-person (LiPs) in the family courts rely on suspect free legal advice from unregulated sources is to be tested by research launched this month.
Academics, including a former legal aid solicitor, will explore the quality of advice handed out through non-qualified advisors – such as McKenzie Friends – online help forums and social media boards.
The object of the study is to see if children’s welfare is being put at risk by unreliable or biased information – possibly “designed to further a prejudiced agenda”. It will focus on cases relating to child protection and children’s living arrangements.
A linguist will analyse questions asked by LiPs with the help of specialised software. A prominent law academic will examine the advice LiPs are given, who is giving it, and how much understanding they have of judicial processes and legal strategies.
The research specifies on a dedicated website that cuts in legal aid have led to an increase in LiPs who “turn to online sources and forums, which can potentially be misleading”.
It goes on: “One of the outcomes of the project is to inform people on how to find reliable information and further sources of advice.”
Called Linguistic and socio-legal analysis of online forums for litigants in person, it will be split between former legal aid lawyer and author of Legally aided clients and their solicitors Hilary Sommerlad, who is professor of law and society at the University of Leeds, and linguist Dr Tatiana Tkacukova at Birmingham City University, who has previously surveyed LiPs in the Birmingham Civil Justice Centre.
Professor Sommerlad said: “Access to the law is vital if people are to realise their rights and defend claims brought against them. Yet the law is alien and intimidating to most lay people.
“With the removal of legal aid from most private law matters more and more people are obliged to navigate the law’s highly complex procedures and deal with its esoteric language unaided, and often at points in their lives when they are at their most vulnerable.
“As an unregulated source of legal aid, the quality of information and advice provided by McKenzie Friends is inevitably highly variable. This research into their online activities will therefore be extremely valuable in assessing the dangers and benefits of this form of advice.”