A court support service that helps thousands of people who cannot afford a lawyer is under threat after having its government funding pulled, the Guardian has learned.
It comes as the number of people struggling to get justice without a lawyer has soared following swingeing cuts to legal aid in 2013.
The charity Support Through Court has been core-funded by the Ministry of Justice for the last eight years but was told this would cease 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 give practical and emotional help to those navigating the justice system alone.
It is one of several charities working with unrepresented people in court whose funding is in doubt after the government ended its litigants in person strategy earlier this year. They have been told there will be grants they can apply for in future but given no idea of how much these will be, or what the timescales are.
Left with a £400,000 shortfall in its budget, Support Through Court is about to launch an urgent appeal for funds, without which it faces the prospect of redundancies and the closure of some of its offices.
Eileen Pereira, the chief executive of the charity, said: “Every day hundreds of people who can’t access legal aid walk into court buildings in need of support and guidance and this is only set to rise as the cost of living increases. Without the funding we’ve received for eight years, we’re facing the real possibility of closing the doors on the support we provide to these people.
“To end up closing any of our services would have a devastating impact, not just on the clients we support but on the whole court system.”
Legal aid was taken away in most civil cases and almost all private family law 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 just one party has a lawyer, 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 separating of finances.
Alex Cunningham, the shadow minister for courts, said: “Our courts are buckling under overwhelming backlogs and this is completely typical of the Tories’ shortsightedness and incompetence in running our justice system.
“Attending court hearings can be a hugely stressful experience and courts run more efficiently when parties are informed and supported through the process. Labour would begin to tackle the backlog and restore order in the criminal justice system.”
While 81% of all those bringing civil claims – such as companies chasing debts – have lawyers, only 44% of those defending them are represented.
The Law Society of England and Wales president, I Stephanie Boyce, said: “Cuts to legal aid have left more and more people having to represent themselves in court as litigants in person. What they most need is legal advice and representation, but Support Through Court provides practical and emotional support that can help them through stressful court hearings. It would be another blow to people trying to navigate the justice system if state funding were removed for this important service.”
The funding shortfall faced by specialist legal and advice support services is £17.5m for 2022-23, according to data collected by the Community Justice Fund.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We want access to early legal support to be available to those who need it most and charities will soon be able to bid for new grant funding so even more people can benefit from their services.”