If you are representing yourself in court, you may be worried about what to expect. ‘Litigants in person’ as they are called, often appear on their own behalf out of necessity. Although you may not think it at the moment, it can in some circumstances be quite advantageous to represent yourself. You know your case better than anyone else, and the judge and the lawyer for the other party have to help you to understand the legal issues in your case.
The Judge’s Duty
When dealing with a litigant in person it is a judge’s duty to ensure that they are not disadvantaged. In practical terms this means that the judge will often explain the law to you, and any procedural aspects that you need to understand for the purposes of the hearing. If the other party is represented by a lawyer, they also have to ensure that they point out not only the elements of the law that assist their case, but must also tell you the law where it assists your case (i.e. that is detrimental to their own case.)
Duty Of The Other Side’s Lawyers
Lawyers representing the other side have to balance their obligations to their own client while not taking unfair advantage of an unrepresented party. This may mean that the lawyer has to limit their duty to act in the best interests of their own client. Although the lawyer has to help you to a certain extent, they must also be careful that any assistance you provide does not create a contractual relationship between you and the other side’s lawyer. This may happen, for example, if they provide advice that you subsequently act upon.
The exact nature of the duty that a lawyer owes to an unrepresented party depends on whether the lawyer is a barrister or a solicitor. A solicitor’s overriding duty is to his or her client. A barrister’s duty, however, is somewhat different. A barrister owes equal duties to the court and to his or her client. This means, for example, that a barrister cannot knowingly tell a lie to the court on behalf of his or her client. This extends to you as an unrepresented party. A barrister cannot therefore make a statement to you that they know to be false. If they unwittingly tell you something that is not true, they have to tell you as soon as they become aware of it.
Conduct Of A Litigant In Person
If you are representing yourself in court and the other party is represented, it is important that you do not consider the other side’s lawyer to be your ‘enemy.’ Lawyers in this country are well trained at dealing with litigants in person, and are under a duty to be able to assist you with understanding procedure and legal concepts where applicable. The judge or magistrate hearing your case will also have experience of dealing with litigants in person, and will be able to help you with anything that you are unsure of. If there are elements of your case that they consider you have not covered fully, or if there is more information that they require, they will as you for it.
Seeking Legal Advice
In some circumstances, you may arrive at court and the nature or complexity of your case may be such that you really would benefit from seeking legal advice before pursuing your case. This may happen if, for example, your case raises significant technical legal questions, or if you may be eligible for legal aid but didn’t realise it, or if pursuing your case may mean that you are eligible to pay substantial costs of the other side if you lose (for example, a claim for judicial review). In these circumstances, it is up to you whether you decide to seek advice or not, but it is well worth giving the matter some consideration if in particular the judge advises you to do so.