No one wants to be in the position of being taken to court or having to take someone to court.
But if this seems unavoidable, it is important to consider your options: You can be represented by a professional (a solicitor or barrister) or represent yourself. So, this is the initial decision that needs to be made. Not everyone has enough knowledge of our legal system to go to court unaided, and it also depends on the dispute.
It is not recommended that you fight your corner on your own if there is a criminal law element to the nature of the case. However, suppose it is a civil dispute (one that does not involve criminal activity), such as an alleged debt, a faulty item bought at a shop or online, or an employment matter. In that case, everyone has the right to represent themselves.
If you can afford it, it is usually better to instruct a solicitor, barrister, or both to help you. But if you cannot afford to do this or do not wish to, you can represent yourself as a Litigant in Person (LIP).
So, on the basis that you have decided to go ahead and represent yourself, the next step is to find out how to go about it.
The first big tip to take on board is that the civil court process (County Court or High Court) is dictated by The Civil Procedure Rules 1998 (CPR). You can learn how to do everything in the courts by using CPR as your bible.
So, if you wish to bring an action against someone, or if another individual is taking action against you, there is help if you wish to be a litigant in person (LIP).
Suppose you are the victim of a potential claim against you. In that case, the other party must write to you about why s/he believes you owe money (or whatever the potential claim is) to allow you to respond and (hopefully) settle the dispute before it goes any further. This is a ‘pre-action protocol’ and 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 straightforward and decide to take you to court no matter what, without 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 outside 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 ignore it and do nothing. The courts consider this an admission, and the claimant can get a county court judgment against you. So, you are forced to defend yourself.
Once you file a defence (which again has to comply with the format laid down by the CPR), the ball starts to roll, and the case is now on course for a hearing. The format of such a hearing and where it will take place will depend very much on the nature of the case.
There could be various stages, such as “disclosure of documentation”, where both parties must send each other the evidence they will refer to prove their case.
Depending on the nature of the claim, there could be a stage where mediation is suggested to settle the case before 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 choose to appear as a LIP, it is important to understand what to say in court and how to say it, so be sure to research. Appropriately addressing a judge is always challenging since different judges are addressed differently.
For example, a senior judge is addressed as My Lord or My Lady in court, 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 this right.
You may also have someone else in court 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.
Judges will always intervene to assist you as a LIP, either to advise you on the court process or to guide you about what information you need to impart. This can slow the process considerably, and (as you can imagine) this is not looked on favourably as it is your responsibility to be prepared and understand what is required of you.
The most important tip is to research the civil court process by learning about the stages of court action and the person you may come across in court: usher, judge’s clerk etc. and how to address the judge.
Representing yourself is a huge undertaking 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.
However, they will probably not be able to represent you during the court hearing, although they could be there for you as moral support.
Finally, the best advice I can give is to think seriously and carefully before deciding to go to court. It will inevitably be stressful and costly, and the outcome is never guaranteed.
Amanda Hamilton is the patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals.