What if I don’t have a lawyer?


All parents in care proceedings should qualify for non means and non merits tested public funding i.e. the State will pay the costs of your solicitor or barrister.

Other people who want to be involved in care proceedings, such as grandparents or step parents may not get any public funding. What happens if the cost of paying for lawyers privately is out of your reach?

In this post we will will consider:

  • People who are confident about representing themselves
  • What help is out there for people who are NOT so confident?


More people are going to have to represent themselves in court.

There is recognition that the legal landscape is changing –  after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing Offenders Act 2012 [LASPO] more people will no longer qualify for help to pay for their legal cases.  There are concerns expressed by many that this will lead to serious injustice; see for example the comments of the President of the Family Division in Q v Q [2014] where private law proceedings had to be adjourned because the father had no legal representation.

The President commented in April 2014:

In the courtroom we must adapt our processes to the new world of those who, not through choice, have to act as litigants in person. We need to think anew about the appropriate roles in the court room of McKenzie friends and other lay advisers. We will need to make our judicial processes more inquisitorial. Do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating adoption of the continental inquisitorial system. Our system, and for good reason, is essentially adversarial, even in the Family Court.

But it is a system very different from the adversarial system of yore. Then the judge functioned as little more than an umpire, adjudicating on whatever claim the litigant chose to bring, the only limitations being the need for some recognised cause of action and the requirement that the evidence had to be both relevant and admissible. Those days have long since gone.

Modern case management imposes on the judge the responsibility of deciding what issues will be argued and what evidence will be permitted. The process before the judge may still be adversarial, but it is a dispute fought in accordance with an agenda set by the judge, not the parties. But that, of course, assumes that the parties are represented. Where they are not, then the judge must take a more active role. The hearing is more likely to produce the right and just result if the judge adopts a more inquisitorial approach.

So what are the options available for the person who cannot afford or does not wish to instruct a family lawyer?

  • You will either feel confident taking the case forward yourself – consider being a litigant in person
  • or you need some help – consider McKenzie friends, public access barristers or other support organisations.
  • Further advice from a Lay Advocateyou may be interested in this post from Ian Julian about the different options available. 

I am confident about representing myself – Litigants in person

Also known as ‘self representing litigants’. If you feel confident about your case and speaking for yourself, it is perfectly possible to present your own case in court.

Here is some useful advice from the Family Separation Hub about assertive communication; it is important to be neither aggressive or passive but assertiveness can be learned.

Here is some advice from Sarah Memmi who is a Community Legal Advice and Representation Service (CLARS) adviser at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre.

Where do I start?

The Court environment can be overwhelming and rather intimidating for anyone who is unfamiliar with it. I advise and am granted rights of audience (permission to address the court) on a case-by-case basis to assist Litigants-in-Person (LIPs) at the Bristol County Court and Family Proceedings Court and I have helped dozens of LIPs at various stages of proceedings. The Bar Council has issued guidance for those who are to represent themselves, which you can find online.  The Guide covers Family Law starting at page 44. In light of this guidance, it may be that the most helpful way I can provide readers with useful information is by going through typical concerns I have come across with LIPs approaching me for advice.

Coming to Court

I think the very first question you will have as an unrepresented party will be “what am I here for?” or “what is going to happen today?”. Lawyers and everyone regularly involved in court processes know the answer and will be able to guess based on documentation you have received from the court. You will generally find your answer in the letter you have received asking you to attend court. The time allowed for the hearing will be your indication. The general rule is that any hearing lasting up to half an hour will be a “directions hearing”, whereby the Judge will tell you what the next steps are (LIP Guide pp.12,46). That means what you will have to do, what the other party will have to do and what a third party will have to do.

For example, a common direction is for a party to provide a witness statement, explaining what their position is and why the court should trust that this position is right. The other party will generally have a chance to respond by providing a statement in response. A hearing lasting longer usually means that evidence will be given and submissions (arguments) be made. As the court is however rather flexible, do not be surprised if the Judge decides to dispose of the matter here and there and to hear evidence and/or final submissions if satisfied that it would be right to do so.

Whilst you are waiting to be heard by the Judge

Don’t forget to let the ushers know that you have arrived. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask them, and remember to be nice to them: they may even tell you what mood your Judge is in today. You will generally be listed for 10am and may wonder why you are still waiting at 10.30am: most cases are listed for the same time, it is the order in which they will be called that determines when you are likely to go in. The ushers can be very helpful then and let you know how many cases are before yours.

Also, and I think most importantly, bear this in mind: if the solicitor/barrister for the other party approaches you prior to the hearing, do not panic and remain courteous. Firstly, they have nothing against you personally, they are merely voicing their clients’ interests with their legal knowledge and removing all unnecessary (for the purpose of the proceedings) emotions in doing so;

Secondly, they have a duty to explain to you what the procedure is and answer your questions if these are neutral.

Remember that negotiation outside of the courtroom is part of the process, it is not befriending the enemy.

Inside the courtroom

Judges are human beings like you and me. Even though they are making decisions which will have an impact on yours and the child(ren)’s lives, the Judges and you will share the same priority: the welfare of the child(ren). The Judge is not for or against you, but ensuring that the child will be safe and well.

I know that most LIPs are anxious to know what will happen in the courtroom. In terms of procedure, the Applicant will open by explaining what the hearing is listed for and what they seek to achieve. The Respondent will add any facts omitted by the Applicant and explain their position. Questions will be asked by the Judge and evidence may be given orally. The general procedure for oral evidence is that witnesses for the Applicant will be called first, any written evidence will stand as their evidence-in-chief (what they claim to be true) and they will then be cross-examined (i.e. their evidence will be challenged) by the Respondent. The Respondent’s witnesses will then be subject to the same procedure. When all the evidence has been given, the Respondent will make a closing speech, followed by the Applicant. The Judge will then give a judgment and make the appropriate order.

Another general concern is that you will not have received legal advice whereas your direct opponent is a solicitor/barrister. The Judge will give you credit for your position as they have to ensure that both parties are on equal footing. In doing so, the Judge may attempt to ask the opposing party what would have been asked on your behalf had you been represented, so as to make sure that they have the “full picture”.

A final and important point: if there is anything you do not understand, ask the Judge to explain as many times as needed; lawyers tend to forget that this jargon isn’t commonly used. It is essential that you understand what happens in court and the terms of any order made.


Guidance from the court on how to treat Litigants in Person

This was discussed by Ryder LJ in the case of Re C (A Child) [2015] at para 14:

The practice that is recommended is that litigants in person are sworn at the outset of the hearing so that their representations can be used as evidence. They should each be asked to set out their case (preferably without interruption and in a fixed time window) and they should be encouraged by the court to answer any relevant propositions put by the other party. The court should identify the key issues for them and put the same issues to each of them at the beginning or end of the statements they are invited to make.

The court should ask the applicant to reply to any matters he or she has not covered before making a decision. Questions which either party want to ask of the other party, assuming that the representations are to be relied upon as evidence, should be asked through the judge where the questioner is a litigant in person so that inappropriate control is not exercised by one party over the other and irrelevant questions can be avoided.


I don’t want to represent myself – I need some help

In this section we look at

  • Public/Direct Access Barristers
  • McKenzie Friends
  • Charities and other forms of support

Public Access Barristers

A useful compromise between paying solicitors or going it alone, could be to consider a Public Access barrister who you can directly instruct to go to court with you or provide written advice. You will be responsible for the paperwork but you will get help at court hearings.

This might be particularly helpful if you feel confident representing yourself in shorter court hearings but would like some help or support at the main hearing. The Bar Council Public Access directory can be found here.

McKenzie friends

Rather than be a litigant in person, another option is to be assisted by a ‘lay advocate’ or a ‘McKenzie friend’. At the moment, neither lay advocates nor McKenzie friends are widely used in care proceedings but this may become more common.

What a McKenzie Friend May Do:

  • Provide moral support for the LIP
  • Take notes
  • Help with case papers
  • Quietly give advice on:
    • points of law or procedure;
    • issues that the litigant may wish to raise in court;
    • questions the litigant may wish to ask witnesses.

 Are there any risks associated with using a McKenzie friend?

Here is a good blog post by Richard Moorhead about some of the concerns about McKenzie friends and the discussion around the pros and cons of their charging for services. Do be careful about who you chose and be wary of anyone who seems to be promoting a particular agenda. Just as with lawyers, the quality of McKenzie friends can vary but also they are not subject to the same kind of training and regulation as lawyers.

Richard Moorhead discusses the Legal Services Consumer Panel Report in 2014 about fee charging McKenzie Friends and comments:

What then of the risks posed by McKenzie friends? The Panel’s report points out that, “Many of the risks consumers face when using a fee-charging McKenzie Friend are also present with lawyers.” I agree. Research has shown time and time again that qualified lawyers, particularly when doing low value, low status work, do not perform at the levels of professionalism that they profess. Yet it is also likely to be the case that there may be (as the Panel notes), “particular risks associated with fee-charging McKenzie Friends.” They risk:

  •  being agenda-driven (which may be one reason why the McKenzie friends tended to emphasise that their clients were male – fathers groups are active in the area and pose particular risks if representing women). It is also worth noting that, When the Panel asked McKenzie Friends, “what worries them about some other McKenzie Friends, the most common answer was those “with an axe to grind‟ who “exploit vulnerable clients as puppets to pursue a personal agenda.”);
  • providing poor quality advice (though lack of training, experience and support – though experienced MFs may provide good quality);
  • not understanding the limitations of the McKenzie Friend role (straying into conducting litigation seems a particular risk);
  • escalating fees (as we have seen they often charged on an hourly basis);
  • breaches of privacy (being less careful with their client’s information); and
  • struck-off lawyers acting as McKenzie Friends (of which they said, “although rumours persist, we found no hard evidence of this is happening in practice”)

Charities, volunteers and other groups

The Personal Support Unit is a charity which currently operates in 7 courts in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and the Central Family Court in London. As their name suggests, they provide you with emotional support during the proceedings. They can provide you with a volunteer to guide you round the court building, go to court with you and support you during the hearing. They cannot offer you legal advice but they can give practical advice about what happens in court.

Citizens Advice Bureau - a charity that provides free advice to help people with their legal problems. They offer advice from over 3,000 locations in England and Wales. Visit their site to see if you have a local CAB.

The Bar Pro Bono Unit is a charity which helps to find pro bono (free) legal assistance from volunteer barristers. If you have cannot afford to pay and have no public funding, it can help with:

  • advice, representation and help at mediation
  • cases in all legal areas
  • cases where proceedings have not yet been started
  • cases in all tribunals and courts in England and Wales

BUT you cannot self refer, applications will only be accepted if they come via a referrer, such as your MP, a lawyer or an advice agency.

The Family Rights Group  is a charity in England and Wales that advises families whose children are involved with or need children’s services because of welfare needs or concerns. It has an excellent and comprehensive advice service and you can call its advice line on 0808 801 0366

Parents Against Injustice  (PAIN) are a voluntary organisation, run and funded by volunteers who are provide help and support to families caught in the care system. You may need to exercise some caution here as the site is linked to the former MP John Hemming who advises parents to leave the country rather than engage in care proceedings. As we have explained in some detail in posts concerning ‘forced adoption’ we do not think that pursuing a particular agenda about the alleged corruption of the family court system is of much help to parents.

There may be other organisations in your local area which it would be a good idea to contact. Please let us know of any others you think it would be helpful to publicise.

Please also see our Legal Advice page in Links and Resources.


Practicalities – court fees and statements

Payment of court fees to issue an application

Even if you don’t have to pay a lawyer, you may have to pay money to get the court to issue your application.

There is information about this on the Ministry of Justice website.

Also see their leaflet – Court and Tribunal Fees – Do I have to pay them?  You don’t have to pay if you are receiving the following benefits:

Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
Income Support
Universal Credit with gross annual earnings of less than £6,000
State Pension Credit – Guarantee Credit
Scottish Civil Legal Aid (not Advice and Assistance or Advice by Way of Representation)


Help with writing a statement

Some courts will provide you with a template if you need to write a statement. As a basic minimum, every statement should contain the following:

  • Start with the name of the case and the case number
  • State the full name and address of the person making it
  • Set out what the person has to say clearly in numbered paragraphs on numbered pages
  • End with this paragraph ‘I believe that the facts stated in this witness statement are true’
  • Be signed by the person making it and dated.

Further reading/information

24 thoughts on “What if I don’t have a lawyer?

      1. phillimoresarah

        I hope no one would ever be left to face the Supreme Court without some help, but you are right, the way things are going it may well become commonplace…

    1. Sarah Phillimore

      What the government could have done is not take away funding from Citizens Advice Bureaus and Law Centres at the same time they cut legal aid. They will reap what they have sown and many will suffer for it.

  1. amber

    Justice For Families or Parents Against Injustice were not mentioned. Some of us do have right of audience.

  2. Sarah Phillimore

    Amber – if you want to write a short piece about these organisations and what they can offer, we will consider it. However, any group that has clear links with either John Hemming or Ian Josephs is one we will have to treat with extreme caution, for reasons which I hope are obvious to anyone who spends any time on this site.

    We don’t believe vulnerable parents are best served by people who have an agenda, and who seek to promote that agenda over and above anything else.

  3. Sarah Phillimore

    Amber – I have now edited this post to include reference to PAIN. If you think these comments are unfair or not representative of the work PAIN does, then you are welcome to provide more details.

  4. Sam

    Can a judge decide on the day whether or not you may bring a Mckenzie Friend ? Potentially leaving you without support.

  5. Sarah Phillimore

    McKenzie friends are allowed into court entirely at the discretion of the Judge who I assume can exercise this discretion at any time and grant or refuse to grant permission at any time.

    But I hope that most Judges, most of the time would not interfere with a litigant in person who wished to rely upon a McKenzie friend; it does raise issues around Article 6 I think. Provided the McKF can be trusted to behave responsibly and not disrupt proceedings, they should be allowed into court and should be allowed to address the court – is my view.

  6. Pingback: Who can help me present my case to court? | Child Protection Resource

  7. Sam

    I know that lawyers have a duty not to mislead the court whilst inside the court does this duty extend not to mislead a LIP whilst communicating with them outside of the court please?

    1. Sarah Phillimore

      Of course. To deliberately attempt to mislead anyone, be they Lip or fellow professional would be conduct likely to bring the professional into disrepute and should be punished by the relevant regulatory body.

      1. Sam

        Thanks Sarah again that’s helpful. Just to add to your article ,you could also be exempt from court fees if you are employed and on a low income. Then if your salary is slightly too high you still may only have to pay part fees.

        1. angelo granda

          Sam, Thank you for your information about court fees.Do you happen to know where a self-litigant stands on the question of compensation?
          Should he or she win the case, can the LA be ordered by the Judge to reinburse their reasonable costs and expenses?
          I have never been a self-litigant in any case.however, I did once act for myself in a civil court as respondent.I was faced with two barristers against me.
          We all went before the Judge .Despite having no court experience, I argued my case and won naturally!
          The Judge agreed with me and signalled his intention to find in my favour.
          At that stage he ordered a ‘stand-down’ to give us all a chance to think.They both conferred privately with their client. One of them approached me and asked me would I be happy if they dropped the complaint,meaning I would leave court without a stain on my character and without having to pay the sum claimed.

          I agreed and when we went back into court,the judge asked if I agreed to the arrangement and that is what happened without a full hearing.

          That is how I was out-manouvred by two experienced barristers! Whether you can say I was MISLED by them is another question.It was not unethical but very effectively saved their client a lot of money.Because there was no full hearing,I never got the chance to claim costs being so keen to get out of there into the fresh air! I stepped on a mine.

          1. Sarah Phillimore

            Family cases are very unlikely to attract costs orders unless you can prove significant litigation misconduct, for e.g. the other side lying, being fraudulent etc, etc.

  8. angelo granda

    They are like politicians .They do have ethics and endeavour to be scrupulously honest ( especally barristers who have very high standards).
    However, it is the LIP’s responsibility not to be misled. When faced with the LA lawyer, at all times remember he has to outmanouvre you to win his case.
    When buying a used car or double-glazing, it is caveat emptor. It’s the same with lawyers,I think.If they offer a deal beware! If they suggest a compromise , beware! They won’t do either unless they have to do so as damage limitation.
    Once an LIP steps into the court arena, it is like a minefield. They are out to win their case.

    Listen carefully to the Judge.As the saying goes- JUST make your case and JUST make it clear!. Their response should already be clear to you too by the time you get to court.
    If they want a deal,they are probably on the run.They will keep a poker-face like a card player to outmanouvre you.

    1. Sarah Phillimore

      I don’t attempt to ‘outmanoeuvre’ people. It isn’t some game. I either have a good case or I don’t. If I have a good case, I let the case speak for itself. If I don’t have a good case I will hopefully make sure my client knows that. I won’t trumpet to the other side that I think i have a weak case but nor will I try playing some silly game, which a judge would see right through in any event.

      If I talk to a LiP it is genuinely to try and broker some agreement or at least narrow the issues between us so we don’t waste time. I think LiPs ought to at least try to discuss the case with the other side but i appreciate this may be a scarey prospect for some.

      1. angelo granda

        I know its not a game but it’s like a game of cards in a way because you either have a good hand or a bad one, I suppose.
        Unlike cards where the rules are fixed, of course,the judge decides the outcome.
        Perhaps LIP’s should do like the LA’s do and go into the fray emphasising the cp narrative strongly and attack the LA’s ,sw’s relentlessly, concentrate on presenting evidence of all the harm they are ‘likely’ to have suffered in care and the ‘risk’ inherent in the care system.Tell the Court of all the procedures the sw’s have already omitted to implement .Call the children to give evidence on video if necessary.
        Go through the welfare checklist in great detail and show how and when the children will be better off at home rather than waste time defending themselves against ‘possibilities and probabilities’.Attack may be the best form of defence.All the time keep repeating how willing you are to cooperate with the system!
        LIP’s must be very tough,I can’t imagine doing it myself.I would probably ‘dry up’ as soon as I stood up to address court.
        Correct me if I am wrong,Sarah,but I think you will have done Public speaking as part of your training.An LIP should do the same as part of his preparation..

        1. Sarah Phillimore

          Yes, I agree that training and/or practice in public speaking is very useful. Many people are very nervous because it is unfamiliar to them.

  9. Amber


    Dear Sarah,

    As this has resurfaced I should state that I resigned from Justice For Families on August 3rd 2015 as a unpaid volunteer because of my concerns with them breaching confidentiality leading to a hate campaign against me where the police are still involved- Hemming did not care & still represents the client which is deplorable; charging clients while being on full-time salaries; contacting the opposing party to the one I was assisting giving them confidential information; empty promises to pay me; not knowing what FDAC is & then just leaving the poor client in limbo with no apology (& other reasons). They did not get on the Family Justice Council which they applied for as a Parent Rep.

    I am still an adviser with PAIN and need to clarify we have no links to John Hemming. I am also with Citizens Advice where staff are trained. Alison, Chair of Pain is a qualified nurse & must be commended.



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