Yes – it is called being a litigant-in-person – but it might not be advisable. First of all, the court should always be the option of last resort.
The approaches of the various courts differ hugely – for example, the small claims track (technically not a court) is designed to serve as a low-cost, user-friendly forum for resolving disputes without the need for a lawyer (that said the small claims court can be a stressful process).
Bringing legal action without legal representation comes with a huge health warning. It can become a major undertaking out of proportion – in terms of time, effort, stress and money – with the original dispute. It also can expose you to the legal costs of the other side (which could be huge). If you are contemplating bringing a legal action, you need some objective and expert advice from someone who knows what they are talking about and you don’t have to pay for that (for example, from an advisor at your local Citizens Advice Bureau or Law Centre).
Lawyers tend to write off litigants-in-person as ‘vexatious’ or plain bonkers. It is an unfair caricature. A 2005 study by Professor Richard Moorhead and Mark Sefton of Cardiff University found that ‘difficult’ litigants were ‘a very small minority’. However the courts do attract obsessives – and the labyrinthine processes of the law are enough to drive anyone around the bend. That said, there have been some remarkable successes by unrepresented litigants. Most notably the two environmental campaigners who single-handedly took on the might of the multinational food fast-food company McDonald’s in the long civil action ever seen in the English courts which ended in 1997 after 2 1/2 years. The ‘McLibel’ trial cost the company £10 million.
Increasingly consumers and businesses are directed away from the legal system and towards other solutions known generically as ‘alternative dispute resolution’ including mediation, adjudication, arbitration, conciliation and ombudsman schemes. Sometimes these are used alongside courts and tribunals; sometimes they are alternatives to courts and tribunals. A good place to find out more is here. (www.adrnow.org.uk).
One of the consequences of the ongoing legal aid reforms under the Coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is that increasingly unrepresented claimants will end up in our courts. The point made forcefully in a report by the justice select committee on the operation of the family courts, which argued that it was self-evident parents would not give up applications for contact, residence or maintenance simply because they did not have legal aid. ‘We’re concerned that the Ministry of Justice does not appear to have appreciated that,’ the MPs noted.
Little thought appears to have been given as to how litigants in person will navigate the courts and how the courts will cope with the extra pressure of unrepresented litigants. The Bill will scrap legal aid for social welfare law (welfare benefits, employment, debt, most housing and immigration) and private family law including advice on divorce, child custody, and child support. To put this into perspective, there were 211,000 family cases last year where people received initial advice and assistance under the family legal aid scheme and a further 53,800 cases where they received representation before the courts. All family cases are to be scrapped under the legal aid scheme unless there is evidence of domestic violence.
The Citizens Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice deals with inquiries from more than 11,000 people a year all either about to be involved in court proceedings or already involved in court proceedings.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award