The Solicitor’s Role When Dealing with Litigants in Person

A litigation partner at a top 40 UK law firm is urging fellow lawyers to be supportive of people who are representing themselves in court hearings.

Peter Brewer, partner at Clarke Willmott LLP, says managing a litigant in person (known as a LiP) can be an essential part of how a case is handled.

Failure to connect with a LiP can have a serious adverse impact on the overall progress of a case, so it is incumbent on lawyers to take steps to help the case run fairly and smoothly.

Dealing with an unrepresented opponent can make litigation much more challenging and frequently increase the time, and therefore the costs, involved in a case.

Recent years have seen a rise in the number of people representing themselves in court due in part to a decline in legal aid funding and the increasing costs of running litigation brought about, in part, by the current court fees.

Litigants in person often do not understand the court rules which govern the procedure and may not have a grasp on legal principle or rely on ‘bad’ research they found online.

They could refuse to engage with proceedings, or on occasion, exhibit disruptive behaviour, or have difficulties accepting a decision of the court.

Failure to connect with a LiP can have a serious adverse impact on the overall progress of a case, so it is incumbent on lawyers to take steps to help the case run fairly and smoothly.

However, solicitors are expected to behave professionally towards LiPs and are not allowed to take unfair advantage of the fact they do not have their own lawyer by, and must take reasonable steps to guide them through the litigation process, obviously without giving them legal advice. That in itself is a delicate balancing act for the solicitor to perform.

Although the solicitor cannot give the unrepresented party legal or tactical advice; the court may ask them to explain court procedure to the litigant in person.

While the court might appear to be ‘helping’, it is only being done to make sure that the court hearing is fair.

In some situations, the judge may ask the party who has legal representation to deal with some practical matters such as preparing the bundles of court papers.

The judge might also need to spend time making sure that the unrepresented party understands what is happening and is dealing with the right points.

When engaging with LiP, I’d recommend using neutral and clear language, assisting the court as much as appropriate, being non-adversarial, reminding unrepresented parties of hearings in advance, keeping barristers informed, and attending court early as pre-trial negotiations may take longer.

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