Legal fees not the only reason for litigants appearing in person
I refer to the articles that appeared in the South China Morning Post on February 21 regarding possible changes to the legal system, including the introduction of a contingency fee system. As someone who has just been involved in a civil action in the High Court as a litigant in person, I was interested to read some of the comments that were made about individuals who choose to exercise their fundamental right to appear in person.
Your Editorial ('Justice for all') refers to 'alarming increases in the number of unrepresented litigants in recent years', while in a front-page article ('Law officials to study 'no-win, no fee' system'), Solicitor-General Bob Alcock refers to 'all these unrepresented litigants'. Jane Moir, in her 'From the Bar' column, intones that watching citizens represent themselves in the courts is 'a painful process', as they 'have to fumble through with limited knowledge of procedure'.
It is generally held that people represent themselves in court because they cannot afford a lawyer. My own experience suggests otherwise. After deciding to take legal action, I approached two sets of lawyers. The first firm gave me poor advice, suggesting I apply for Judicial Review, when clearly this did not work in my case. The second firm was an improvement, but - immediately following the first meeting with a barrister - they suggested that I drop the case. I subsequently took the case on myself and was made an offer of settlement on the seventh day of the hearing, which I accepted. I am pleased to say that the legal firm that had suggested I drop the case two years earlier were most helpful in assisting me in the run-up to the hearing and during the course of the hearing itself, most particularly with regard to the terms of the settlement.
My experience in conducting my own case has opened my eyes to a number of things. First, the delays and mistakes that I observed were invariably caused by members of the legal profession. Second, and more importantly, some of the service that I received from the lawyers I was paying was unsatisfactory, betraying a worrying lack of preparation.
In his report, Access to Justice, Lord Woolf cautions against the arrogance of an approach that sees litigants in person as a nuisance, as an impediment to the cosy relationship between solicitors, barristers, court staff and judges. He identifies the true problem as 'the court system and its procedures which are still too often inaccessible and incomprehensible to ordinary people'.