Bristol Family Law Scheme – reflections on the needs of litigants in person

The Bristol Family Law Scheme was established in 2015. It is made up of volunteers from local solicitors firms and chambers; there are about 30 volunteers on the current rota. Administrative support is provided by the PSU at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre. The scheme used to run weekly but now runs fortnightly due to pressure on the volunteers. There are 7 slots available from 10am – 4pm for 30 minutes each.

The scheme is directed at private law proceedings only – i.e disputes between parents about how they spend time with their children post separation.

Each volunteer was asked to complete a form detailing the type of issues raised by each client.

I have been able to analyse the forms for 57 sessions between 5th November 2015 and 28th September 2017, involving 246 people, thus averaging about 4 per session.

What follows can only be a rough and ready statistical analysis – clearly volunteers did not complete forms for each session and there are indications that it wasn’t always easy to identify a category of presenting issue. But this gives a rough idea of what are the pressing matters for those who seek to use the scheme.

English as a second language 65 26%
Likely to be in person 199 80%
Mental health problems 36 14%
Substance abuse 39 16%
Learning difficulties or literacy problems 31 13%
Immigration difficulties 13 5%
Child abduction 14 5%
Violence or sexual abuse of adult or child 130 53%
Previous proceedings 91 37%
Leave to remove 17 7%
Current criminal proceedings 10 4%
Reference to other agencies 42 17%


Some comments on the statistics

Unsurprisingly 80% of those attending were likely to be self representing at any future hearings. What leaps out is that a quarter of all clients did not have English as their main language and over half were describing issues of physical or sexual violence directed at either adults or children in their proceedings.

Interestingly 37% of the clients had been involved in previous proceedings which supports my view that the court is not likely to be the best arena to resolve adult difficulties around child arrangement orders.

On average, only 4 out of the 7 slots were filled at each session. This appears primarily due to clients who book a session but simply don’t attend and the reasons for that are not known.

It appears clear that the scheme meets a need for local people who are unrepresented in family proceedings. Whether or not such short advice sessions can make much realistic positive long term impact in proceedings involving such serious issues is another question and one beyond my attempts here at statistical analysis.

Family Court Information website

Every client is provided with a letter providing the address of the Family Court information website

Web site statistics show from 10 months between July 2017 and April 2018 104,890 users and 138,125 sessions. Interestingly only 2.3% of those users (2,585) were accessing the site from Bristol – a staggering 27% (29,934) were accessing the site from London. People in every major city were accessing the site and the bounce rate was a reasonable 69% – i.e. people weren’t simply leaving the site after visiting one page.

This suggests that there is considerable appetite country wide for this kind of information and a need for each local court centre to have its own online source of information.

2 thoughts on “Bristol Family Law Scheme – reflections on the needs of litigants in person

  1. Angelo Granda

    A Parent’s View

    There has been much publicity just recently about action taken by members of the criminal bar who claim that due to the relentless cuts over many years to legal funding for defendants, the justice system is now BROKEN.
    We should all recognise that the same applies to the ‘public law’ cases held in the civil family courts; the system is BROKEN. It is often said that even lawyers who self-litigate have a fool as a client!
    There can be no surer method for the authorities to impose injustice upon families and degradation ( including a lifetime of captivity for helpless handicapped children) than by withdrawing the capacity of victims to fight their case in Court.This is happening now and ,in my view,it brings shame upon our country.
    The criminal barristers complain that when they agree to take on cases, the payments are so low ,it is not possible to read all the documentation and provide proper representation so they are very reluctant to take cases.
    We should all campaign against it.Legal funding has to be restored to the previous levels and then quadrupled ,in my opinion.
    Then we should enable reviews and/or appeals for all alleged miscarriages of justice and call for the emancipation of the thousands of children who are condemned to life ii secure residential homes.
    All comments welcome.

  2. Pingback: In praise of Bristol Pro Bono | Child Protection Resource

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