Litigants in Person – A Field Guide
Jeremy Hall, 42 Bedford Row
The internet groans with DIY guides on how to conduct your own case in court. (I’ve found some of them quite helpful, but that’s just between you and me.) Because we don’t have enough to read, a year ago the Bar Council teamed up with the Law Society to produce a 28 page guide called ‘Litigants in Person: Guidelines for Lawyers’. In it, there are some helpful tips and suggestions for us which, when boiled down, amount to a polite request not to be pompous overbearing gits.
However, what this publication lacks is a proper assessment of the LiPs themselves – a ‘field guide’, if you will, to arm us with the really vital information about this new breed of foe massing in dangerous numbers at a court near you. Google isn’t much help either – hence this modest offering in selfless service to the legal profession. It must necessarily be seen as a work in progress, a sort of ‘WikiLiP’ , where those souls who have appeared against LiPs and survived can update and edit the guide with their own experiences.
I have arranged it into sub-headings to cover different types of LiP – in no particular order. It naturally concentrates on the trickier categories – as we know, most LiPs are thoroughly agreeable people who cope well with the stresses and challenges of self-representation.
(1) The Angry Red-Faced Person
You arrive at court early. The lukewarm latte has yet to do its work. You peer amiably around the waiting area trying to guess which person is your client. You take another sip and slowly sense the presence of a red-faced man staring at you. You have never met him, but it is obvious that he hates you. He hates you because he has made it his business to find out that it is you who is representing his ex-wife. He has looked at your chambers profile, and for all we know, has spent the previous evening fashioning voodoo dolls of you in various poses. He will communicate with you, but only in verbal gobbets of pent-up fury. There is a genuine risk to your physical welfare at all times.
Sweet-talk the usher into getting your case called as soon as possible. Hopefully his rage will be diverted towards the judge. No need to feel guilty – the judge sits behind large pieces of protective court furniture and gets free car parking and a pension.
(2). The Mild-Mannered Nutcase
Nothing to worry about here, you think, as you approach a benign-looking person wearing a grin and beige clothing. Time to think again. He stares at you through slate-grey eyes, and announces that this earthling court is only a staging post in the journey to Hades for the anti-Christ (your client). A ‘holy book’ is produced to prove it, which you are invited to consult. It is an exercise book full of biro-scrawled hieroglyphics. A twig with some leaves on is removed from a satchel, and lazily chewed as you try to explain the principles of maintenance pending suit.
Resist the urge to run back to your client and describe, with dramatic flourishes, the scale of the lunacy. Given that this is the person with whom she had four children, it might jar.
(3). The Flirtatious One
Obviously no LiP has flirted with me. This is because I am hideous. The only LiPs who would flirt with me fall firmly within category (2), which thankfully hasn’t happened yet as it would make for a nightmarish amalgam of LiP hell. So this is drawn from reliable anecdotes….
You try to be businesslike, but the LiP can’t be doing with any of that. A fan of yourbarristerboyfriend.com, she asks huskily whether you have read the particulars of her bad behaviour in the petition? “I was really naughty”, she giggles, as she tugs at the end of a pink ribbon dangling out of your trouser pocket. You haven’t read it, you splutter, because nobody does, but you quickly turn it up on the walk back to speak with your client, and note the contents of it with a mixture of alarm and prurient fascination. As you dart into your interview room you notice she is looking after you with her head tilted.
Do not be seen by your client sitting next to the LiP working out child support using the calculator on your phone. He will assume that you are exchanging telephone numbers, sexting, or worse, and will sack you on the spot.
(4). The Bag Person
For a brief moment, you think that your ‘opponent’ at this final hearing in a financial remedies case has brought his weekly grocery shopping with him. In fact, he has brought 17 Asda bags full of every single administrative document that has fallen through the letter box for the duration of the 30 year marriage. All of them are originals and you have not seen any of them before. 2.6% of them will be extremely relevant. He has arrived at 10.30 am on the dot. The usher helpfully arrives and tells you that the judge wants to start the case right now, and could everyone please make their way into court.
The obvious one is to think of a more sensible career and leave the bar. I’ve always fancied being a postman in some bucolic corner of Wessex where I could do the round on a bicycle and wear comfortable shorts. Finished by lunchtime. Bliss.
(5) Thin-Lipped and Ferociously Bright
Small, clever eyes blink at you through rimless glasses before it is announced, correctly, that paragraphs 5, 8 and 11 of your skeleton argument are baseless and that you have misunderstood the main thrust of Baroness Hale’s obiter remarks in a case which seems to have slipped off your radar. Her new partner, who looks unnervingly like Garry Kasporov, glances at you in pity. It is only 9.30am, but you have a migraine. There is an urge to shout ‘Mummy!’.
Do not under any circumstances go into court. Try to reach some sort of sensible agreement and don’t pick any silly battles. You will lose in the most humiliating way and your client will wonder why on earth he has engaged you. You may need to emigrate, depending on how savvy the LiP is with social media.
(6) The Normal Person
Half-way through the morning’s negotiations and things are moving along rather well. The only difficulty being that the LiP’s suggestions are, by several nautical miles, more sensible than your client’s instructions. You realise that she is far more pleasant and likeable than any of your own friends.
There might be nothing for it but to assume the characteristics of the mild-mannered nutcase (see above) in the hope of putting them off their stride. If you can’t beat these pesky LiPs, then become one for the day. Come to think of it, the above descriptions conjure up images of several of m’learned friends…..