A new research project will examine whether vulnerable people representing themselves in child court cases find themselves and their children put at risk by misinformed or biased online legal advice.
Academics at Birmingham City University and the University of Leeds have launched the project – titled Changing landscape of access to justice in private and public law children cases - which will explore the quality, and types of advice handed out through legal advisors, online help forums or social media boards.
Cuts to legal aid have seen a major rise in the number of those acting as their own representatives in court, with over 80 per cent of family court cases seeing a least one party representing themselves – a practice known as Litigants in Person (LIPs). Without affordable face-to-face legal advice, many LIPs turn to online sources or McKenzie Friends – litigation friends who help LIPs represent themselves on a voluntary basis or for a fee. The legal community has raised serious concerns about the quality of information and advice provided online by McKenzie Friends or online forum facilitators.
The study - the first analysis of its kind – will examine the quality and accuracy of free legal support made available online, to see if children’s welfare is being put at risk by incorrect or biased information designed to further a prejudiced agenda. Most LIPs have no previous legal background, knowledge or expertise, leaving them reliant on scouring the internet for support or information to help build their cases.
The research will be carried out by English linguistics specialist Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University, and legal expert Hilary Sommerlad, Professor of Law and Justice at the University of Leeds.
Dr Tkacukova said:
“People representing themselves in court often find themselves at an immediate disadvantage because the language of law, the documentation and the processes are all geared towards those who have previous working knowledge of it.
For people without any background in law it is very difficult to know where to look for relevant information, which legal concepts are applicable to their case or how to present their side of the story in an appropriate way, so often they will look for help, support or information online.
Unfortunately a lot of the information which is out there is either incorrect or has been designed to further a specific viewpoint of how justice should or should not work. This can not only lead to people unwittingly be used to further propaganda, but more worryingly can have a serious impact on the way justice is delivered and the lives of children.
What we want to do with this project is find out what information LIPs are seeking online and what advice they are provided with so that we are able to help drive change and support people in searching for legal advice they need.”
The study will focus specifically on public and private child cases – including those related to child protection and children’s living arrangements – to see if the information and current processes are putting LIPs and their children at risk. It will look at the key words and search terms most often used by LIPs to access online advice, and assess the quality of information found in the top Google hits.
Over 100,000 words will then be analysed based on questions asked by LIPs and the advice they are given. The analysis will focus on:
The project aims to produce clear guidance to help people avoid being given unreliable information and improve LIP’s awareness of the choices they have when seeking legal advice.
The research will be split between English linguistics specialist Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University, and legal expert Hilary Sommerlad, Professor of Law and Justice at the University of Leeds. Dr Tkacukova, who has been researching the opportunities available to Litigants in Person for over five years, will use specially devised tools to find and analyse the language used online. Hilary Sommerlad, Professor of Law and Justice at the University of Leeds, will examine the quality of the legal advice found.
Professor Sommerland 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 a result many turn to online sources including ‘McKenzie Friends’, that is those who offer representation themselves on a voluntary basis or for a fee.
As an unregulated source of legal aid, the quality of information and advice provided is inevitably highly variable. This research into the online activities of McKenzie Friends will therefore be extremely valuable in assessing the dangers and benefits of this form of advice.”
It is hoped the project will spark a change in the quality of information and support available to LIPs online through more official channels. The project will also produce new research evidence base which can support legal reforms currently underway at HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The project has been funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grants scheme.