Ulster University and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) have secured almost £220,000 to fund an in-depth study examining the extent to which people represent themselves in court hearings and how this impacts on the justice system and the courts.
The two-year study, which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first of its kind in the civil and family courts in Northern Ireland.
The research will explore why people represent themselves in court, the experience they have without legal representation, the impact this has on the courts and the human rights issues that are at stake. The areas of interest include family proceedings, family homes and domestic violence, divorce, civil bills and bankruptcy.
The research will also trial a legal support clinic based at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The clinic will provide basic legal support to help individuals understand and navigate court proceedings. The research will then compare the experiences of people who are legally unrepresented who receive this procedural advice with those unrepresented people who do not receive any.
Dr Gráinne McKeever from Ulster University’s School of Law said: “Many people who are involved in legal proceedings do not have legal representation and bring or defend their case by themselves. This research project is a perfect fit for Ulster University with our world-leading reputation for legal research excellence and particularly access to justice. It will help us to understand how a lack of legal advice impacts on an individual’s right to access justice and identify any difficulties that in turn impact the court system.
“This is a crucial access to justice and human rights issue that will be of critical importance as decisions are taken on publicly funded legal aid. Ulster University’s research aims to understand the challenges facing the court system in delivering access to justice for unrepresented individuals and identify how these individuals can be supported.”
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner Les Allamby added: “This is an exciting piece of research for the Human Rights Commission. We want to understand what it is like to go to court alone and if there is anything that can be done to improve this experience. Ultimately we want to ensure that our justice process treats people without lawyers fairly.”