Last Friday, the judiciary published a special guide for ‘self-represented’ litigants to help them through the judicial process. It was a sign of the times if ever there was.
The guide relates only to applications to the Interim Applications Court of the Queen’s Bench Division; but I’m told there are already similar publications in the pipeline for other courts which also see large numbers of litigants in person. The Interim Applications Court typically deals with, for example, injunctions to stop confidential information from being disclosed, or to prevent someone from working for a rival employer or selling a property or assets.
The judiciary says that ‘a good number’ of parties on both sides of these injunctions are representing themselves, and it expects this to increase. The guide was written by Mr Justice Foskett, with help from Citizen’s Advice, and the Royal Courts of Justice’s personal support unit. So how good is it?
Overall, it does its task quite well; it is clearly written and direct, with plenty of very helpful information. It contains examples of a skeleton argument and witness statement that will be an invaluable resource for LIPs; exactly what they need.
It is also quite useful with regards to court etiquette. For example, it says: ‘You need not worry about the formalities. Lawyers will address the judge as "my lord" or "my lady" and if you can do so, all well and good. If you prefer "sir" or "madam", that will be entirely acceptable. Provided you show courtesy and respect, the judge will not be troubled about the mode of address.’
Another good example: ‘You may find that the barrister or solicitor appearing for the other side in your case will come up to you and introduce themselves. That is perfectly normal. They will do so as a matter of courtesy and indeed professional obligation. They may wish to explain some aspect of what they propose to do or say at the hearing. This is not a matter that should cause you concern…
‘It is possible that you will be handed some new document (for example a witness statement) that you have not seen before. Accept it if it is offered to you and read it if there is time before the hearing commences. Do not worry that such a document has been given to you. The barrister/solicitor will be under an obligation to tell the judge that you have only been given the document shortly before the hearing. The judge will ensure that you are not disadvantaged by this.’
But while the guide tries very hard not to patronise, occasionally it does slip across that line, with advice like, ‘listen carefully and try to understand what is being said’. And although for the most part the guide is written in admirably plain language, it sometimes forgets itself, with phrases such as ‘sub-paragraphed propositions’ and ‘paginated bundle’ (although the latter is defined in a footnote).
The guide also highlights the help available from the personal support unit within the Royal Courts of Justice, in providing some limited office assistance and moral support to litigants in person. The only concern there is whether the unit will be given adequate resources to meet any increase in demand as its services become better publicised.
All in all, the guide is an excellent initiative, and one that should be made available in all courts where individuals will be increasingly obliged to represent themselves, due to legal aid cuts, civil justice reforms, or simply their own financial circumstances. The more that LIPs understand about legal procedure, and the importance of keeping their arguments relevant and concise, the better for all parties.
But it barely needs saying that a simple handbook is no substitute for the reassurance of having a lawyer at one’s side throughout a case.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Litigation Funding magazine, providing in-depth coverage on costs and the financing of litigation.
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