If you are forced to into being involved in a court case, you have the choice to be represented by a professional (a solicitor or barrister) or to represent yourself. Few people outside the legal profession have enough knowledge of our legal system to go to court unaided, and if there is a criminal law element to your case’s nature, it is not recommended that you fight the court alone.
Even during bail hearing, it is advisable to have a professional assist you in convincing the judge to post a Criminal Charge Bail money, which you can get from a professional bail bonds agency or bail bondsman.
However, in a civil dispute—such as an alleged debt, a faulty item bought at a shop or online, or an employment matter—representing yourself is a viable option. Generally, if you can afford it, opt to instruct either solicitor or barrister or both to help you. But if you cannot afford to do this (or you do not wish to) then you can represent yourself as a Litigant in Person (LIP).
If you are the victim of a potential claim against you, then the other party must write to you with information about why she/he believes you owe money (or whatever the potential claim is) in order to give you an opportunity to respond and (hopefully) settle the dispute before it goes any further. This is what is known as a ‘pre-action protocol’ and is an absolute must.
The letter of claim (as it is known) must express all the facts and evidence of the alleged claim leading up to this point and give the other party a (set and reasonable) period of time to respond and resolve the issues.
Of course, this assumes that the party wishing to take you to court is a reasonable individual. You could get a situation where they are not quite so straight forward and decide that they will take you to court no matter what, without any regard to any pre discussion and completely disregarding what you have to say. Unfortunately, you are then faced with the prospect of court action, which is not what you wanted, but it is outside of your control.
A claim is issued, and according to the CPR you have a set number of days to either acknowledge receipt of the claim and file a defence or admit the claim (or part of it). The worst you can do is to ignore it and do nothing. The courts look upon this as an admission and the claimant can get a county court judgment against you.
Once you file a defence (which again has to comply with the format laid down by the CPR), the case is now on course for a hearing. The format of the hearing and where it will take place will depend on the nature of the case. There could be various stages to go through such as ‘disclosure of documentation’ where both parties have to send to each other the evidence that they will refer to in order to prove their case. Dependingon the nature of the claim there could be a stage where mediation is suggested to try to settle the case prior to the main hearing.
However, it could be a straightforward small claim (such as a debt up to a maximum of £10,000) in which case the hearing will be less formal and be heard in Chambers presided over by a District Judge.
If you are choosing to appear as a LIP, then it is important to understand what to say in court and how to say, so do your research. Different judges are addressed in different ways, so always find out how you should be addressing the court. For example, in court a senior judge is addressed as My Lord or My Lady, whereas a Circuit Judge is addressed as Your Honour. District Judges are addressed as Judge, and Magistrates as Sir or Madam. Here is a useful site to help you get the this right; https://www.judiciary.uk/guidance-and-resources/what-do-i-call-a-judge/
Assistance is available
You may also be allowed to have someone else in court with you to take notes or offer advice – but this person cannot speak for you. This person could be a McKenzie Friend or a paralegal who has been helping you with your case.
When presenting your case, the best advice is to be as clear as you can and to stick to the facts without the temptation to embellish what you say with emotion. This is far more difficult than you think and the judge, or the other party, may intervene if the belief is that you are going off on a tangent.
It is a huge undertaking to represent yourself and a daunting prospect if you have no assistance. A recommended option is to ask for help from a paralegal who can guide you through the court process.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Amanda Hamilton is the Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body and the only paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional.