A legal aid service which helps thousands of people who cannot afford a lawyer is under threat after its government funding was withdrawn, the Guardian has learned.
It comes as the number of people struggling to get justice without a lawyer has skyrocketed following massive legal aid cuts in 2013.
The Support Through Court charity has been funded by the Department of Justice for eight years, but was told it would end at the end of the month. Formerly known as the Personal Support Unit, it has offices in 20 civil and family courts across England and Wales, using volunteers to provide practical and emotional help to those navigating the court system alone .
It is one of several charities working with unrepresented people in court whose funding is in doubt after the government ended its in-person litigants strategy earlier this year. They were told that there would be grants they could apply for in the future, but they have no idea how much or when.
Left with a £400,000 shortfall in its budget, Support Through Court is set to launch an urgent fundraising appeal, without which it faces the prospect of redundancies and the closure of some of its offices.
Eileen Pereira, chief executive of the charity, said: “Every day hundreds of people who do not have access to legal aid come to courthouses in need of support and advice and this will only increase as the cost of living rises. Without the funding we have received for eight years, we face the real possibility of closing the doors to the support we provide to these people.
“Eventually closing one of our services would have a devastating impact, not only on the clients we support, but on the entire justice system.
Legal aid was eliminated in most civil cases and almost all private family law cases in 2013. Since then, the proportion of private family law hearings where both parties have a lawyer has almost halved to one in five.
The most common scenario in private family hearings is that only one party has an attorney, accounting for 42% of all cases last year. Legal experts say this creates an uneven playing field in disputes over issues such as access to children and the separation of finances.
Alex Cunningham, the Shadow Courts Minister, said: ‘Our courts are awash in crippling backlogs and this is quite typical of the myopia and incompetence of the Tories in running our justice system.
“Attending court hearings can be an extremely stressful experience and courts operate more efficiently when parties are informed and supported throughout the process. Labor would begin tackling the backlog and restoring order to the criminal justice system.
While 81% of all those who bring civil lawsuits – such as companies seeking debt – have lawyers, only 44% of those who defend them are represented.
President of the Law Society of England and Wales, I Stephanie Boyce, said: “Cuts to legal aid have forced more and more people to come to court as in-person litigants. What they need most is legal advice and representation, but Support Through Court provides practical and emotional support that can help them through stressful hearings. It would be another blow to people trying to navigate the justice system if state funding is cut for this important service.
The funding gap facing specialist legal support and advice services is £17.5m for 2022-23, according to data collected by the Community Justice Fund.
A Department of Justice spokesperson said: ‘We want those who need it most to have access to early legal assistance and charities will soon be able to apply for new grants so that even more people can benefit. of their service.”