When people go to law, the assumption is that they will brief lawyers to represent them. The reality is that more and more people cannot afford to do so, and find themselves having to comply with rules and procedures that are hard to cope with.

But for the past 30 years such “litigants in person” at the Royal Courts of Justice have been able to find the help they need from the RCJ Advice Bureau, a member of the Citizens Advice movement.

The Bureau was first set up in 1978 as an 18 month ‘experiment’ upon the initiative of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones to help bridge what was then considered to be a glaring gap in legal services as a result of changes in the Legal Aid system. In August 1979 the experiment was extended with funding from the Department of Trade. Help in kind including premises, secretarial services and equipment, was provided by the Courts. To begin with, the Bureau was housed in what had previously been the Porter’s Lodge, a small windowed booth in the main entrance foyer of the Royal Courts of Justice (subsequently to become the RCJ tourist shop). This proved to be impractical, not least because of the lack of any confidential space for clients, and within four months, the Bureau was transferred to more spacious accommodation in one of the recessed alcoves off the Great Hall. Within the year, a survey revealed that more than 50% of visitors to the service for advice were of high relevance to the High Court and most left, saying they were satisfied with the advice they received. The Bureau was an independent advice service in the early days but joined the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in 1982.

Our main aim is to empower the clients to represent themselves but even as early as 1987 there were plans to develop specialist legal advice services with the help of the Free Representation Unit and volunteers from the Bar in general. From its inception in 1996, the Bureau has also had close links with the Bar Pro Bono Unit, from whom it is often able to obtain representation for the more difficult cases, particularly if they are in the Court of Appeal.

Some of these cases have influenced the development of the law and been widely reported. Recent examples of Court of Appeal decisions in which the bureau has acted include Dunnett v Railtrack (consequences of an unreasonable refusal to mediate); Taylor v Lawrence (a full court decided that it has the power to reverse its own order to prevent an injustice), both cases heard in 2002 and represented through the Bar Pro Bono Unit after referral from the RCJ Advice Bureau and Re K (a defendant to committal proceedings — for breach of an order in a case concerning the allowing of contact with children — was entitled to legal representation under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights).

The Bureau aims to provide a holistic service to its clients. It is not unusual for other social and financial problems to lie behind the client’s legal problem. Such matters are referred to the team of non-legal advisers, paid and volunteer, also based in the bureau.

Lord Justice Mummery, Appeal Court Judge and Chair of the Bureau, confirms that “Judges in the Court of Appeal particularly value the service. They regularly come across complex cases that deserve to be heard. The appellants will often have had legal representation at the lower court but, having lost, cannot afford solicitors and barristers to go further. That can put them, and often the court, at a disadvantage. In such cases, if the appellant has not already found the bureau, the court will suggest that he or she make an urgent visit to seek help, adjourning a hearing to make that possible.”

Despite this support, an article in The Telegraph from 2003 demonstrates the vulnerability the service has experienced over the years:

“Depressing news from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, which risks losing its annual grant of £58,000. The CAB, which uses volunteers to deliver a service that would otherwise cost more than £1 million, helps those who have come to court without legal advice. If the CAB closes, the judges will have to spend more time helping these people and other cases will be delayed.”

The grant, which provided a significant contribution towards the Bureau’s running costs, was lost, but thankfully, other resources were found and it didn’t close.

Earlier still, in an extract from a letter written by Sir Thomas Bingham (Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales 1996 to 2000) to the then Lord Chancellor in 1994, Lord Bingham states:

“The law is a mysterious and intimidating jungle to those unfamiliar with its ways. It is essential that litigants acting for themselves should have someone to whom they can turn for guidance and support. This need has for many years been met by the Citizens Advice Bureau in the Royal Courts of Justice, which has given invaluable help to countless people. As ……………………. the costs of litigation steadily rise, so the need for its services become daily more acute. “

Fortuitously for the Bureau and its clients, his plea for financial support was heard. A working party was established by the Judges Council under the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Otton with a brief to consider services available for Litigants in Person at the Royal Courts of Justice. The interim report recommended that the bureau service be increased to five days a week and enhanced by the establishment of a Pro Bono Scheme from both the Bar and Solicitors. This support continues to this day with advisers, who number more than 250, drawn from almost 60 firms in the City and around the law courts, contributing to the unique character of the bureau.

Crucially for the on-going survival of the bureau, in 1996 it was awarded a grant from the Lord Chancellors Department to fund two full-time solicitors and a part-time administrator. We still receive this essential core funding from its successor, the Legal Services Commission, now providing sufficient grant to pay for three full-time solicitors.

The service continues to attract interest worldwide, with regular visits from the legal profession and the judiciary from as far afield as Australia, Japan and Kenya to name a few, all of whom are keen to see whether they can replicate the initiative to enhance access to justice in their own communities. Interestingly, in 1998 the Bureau Manager was even invited to train barristers in the Cameroon on setting up pro bono clinics. It would be good to know whether this initiative is still thriving.

Lord Justice Mummery sums up

“It is crucial that this vital service to the public continues to win generous support so that it can maintain the standards that it has established over the past 30 years and expand and improve its activities over the next 30.”