Become a legal eagle to tip the cost of justice in your favour

Fighting for justice can be cheaper and easier than you think, say David Prosser and Jon Robins

Britain's legal system can take an age to deliver justice. The Equitable Life trial, which began two weeks ago, is expected to last until the end of the year - only then will policyholders find out whether they will benefit from the action. Other cases take even longer - legal action following the collapse of BCCI in 1991 began six months ago and is only half way through.

Britain's legal system can take an age to deliver justice. The Equitable Life trial, which began two weeks ago, is expected to last until the end of the year - only then will policyholders find out whether they will benefit from the action. Other cases take even longer - legal action following the collapse of BCCI in 1991 began six months ago and is only half way through.

The result is widespread perception that taking legal action is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Just 7 per cent of people think solicitors talk in language they can understand, according to recent research - even fewer people think lawyers offer a cost-effective service.

However, consumer experts believe it is time to dispel misconceptions about the British legal system. In fact, they say, it is remarkably easy to get legal advice and to take legal action - and you probably won't need to go near a solicitor.

The first step is asking for help. Dan Levene, of the consumer group Which?, says: "Most people will be able to get free or state-funded legal advice." For the former, the Community Legal Service offers an excellent range of free advice on criminal and civil law. The service consists of a network of advice bodies such as Citizens Advice, offering free access to qualified solicitors and barristers.

A second source of free advice is the financial services industry. Many insurers and credit card providers run legal telephone hotlines - if you're a customer, you're entitled to call up for advice on all areas of civil and criminal law. Similar services are available from motoring organisations and trade unions.

However, none of these helplines will take legal action on your behalf. If you decide you need more than just advice, you may have to tackle the court system.

Keith Richards, author of 450 Legal Problems Solved, published by Which?, says the most important starting point is to work out whether legal action is really necessary.

"Use organisations such as the Community Legal Service to find out what your rights are: it doesn't matter whether your dispute is over a faulty kettle or an enormous mortgage, the best way to negotiate from a position of strength is to find out where you stand," Richards says.

He points out that there are all sorts of options for resolving disputes before legal action is necessary. In the financial services industry, for example, there is an independent ombudsman whose decisions are legally binding on companies, but not consumers. In other industries, trade associations run arbitration and mediation schemes, which may be able to help.

If you do decide to take a case to court, the judge will expect you to have explored these options. "Throughout the court system, judges have the power to halt a case for up to a month if the parties have not already considered alternative ways of resolving their differences," says Richards.

The good news is that, thanks to a series of legal reforms in recent years, fighting your own case in the courts is much less daunting - and expensive - than in the past.

"So much law is now common sense, a professional lawyer is rarely necessary," says Richards. "Don't be at all worried by the thought of taking legal action."

Jonathan Gulliford, of RAC Legal Services, the legal arm of the motoring organisation, also urges people not to be scared. "People don't realise how easy the process now is," he says.

The "small claims track" of your local county court is the first option to consider, if you live in England and Wales (similar processes apply in Scotland through the sherrif's court). It will consider most civil cases - family problems and divorces are the chief exceptions - where you are claiming redress of less than £5,000. For personal injury cases, the limit is £1,000.

Your local court will supply you with the form you need to make a claim. You will be asked to explain your claim in plain English and to give details of any witnesses who can support your statement.

On receipt of your claim, the court gives the defence 14 days to respond. If it wants to fight the case, you will receive a copy of the defence's statement. The case is then heard in front of a judge who will rule on the dispute. The hearing is heard in an office rather than a court, without any of the usual legal trappings such as wigs and gowns.

The cost of fighting a case through the small claims track depends on the size of your claim, but should not be more than £150 or so. If you win, you're entitled to have these costs met, in addition to the settlement you are awarded. If you lose, however, you do not have to pay the other side's fees. You can also go back to the court to apply for enforcement of the judgment, if the other side is slow to pay up.

If you need to claim more than £5,000, don't despair. Either side in a dispute is entitled to ask for the case to be considered under the small claims track, even above the £5,000 cap. Even so, some cases won't be eligible. The next step up the legal ladder is the "fast track", for claims worth between £5,000 and £15,000 (or £50,000 for personal injury cases). These cases are also held in the county court, unlike all larger claims - known as "multi-track" - which are considered in the High Court.

It is possible to represent yourself in both fast track and multi-track cases. But they will be heard under formal rules of evidence: if you have no experience of presenting a case, the courts will try to help, but you are likely to be at a disadvantage. Also, in both cases, if you lose, you can be ordered to pay the other side's costs.

For this reason, it makes sense to get legal help if you can't deal with a case through the small claims track. However, this does not mean you have to run up expensive legal bills.

Although legal aid is now tough to win (see left), there may be other options. It is worth returning to the Community Legal Service to re-establish your rights. Next, check your insurance policies; many home and motor insurers offer legal expenses cover as part of a standard policy.

Legal expenses insurance will pay out if you need to make a claim or defend an action. It covers most types of civil cases, as well as many criminal problems.

Jonathan Gulliford says the most common claims on the RAC's legal expenses insurance arise from consumer disputes. "Someone will claim they have been sold a dud car, for example," he says. By contrast, home insurers are more likely to get claims relating to disputes with neighbours, or cases where someone is being sued because, say, the postman has an accident on their property.

If you don't have legal expenses insurance, it may be time to start looking for a lawyer of your own. The Law Society offers advice on finding a solicitor (020 7242 1222, www.lawsociety.org.uk), but a referral is preferable. Both Citizen's Advice and legal helplines run by insurers and credit card companies may be able to suggest practices.

Don't rule out no-win, no-fee companies. The Government is keen for the sector to play a bigger role in providing access to justice.

"Sadly, the reputation of no-win, no-fee deals has been dragged through the mud," says legal costs expert Kerry Underwood, of St Albans-based law firm Underwoods. "But these arrangements shouldn't be discredited - in some cases, they can more than adequately fill the hole where legal aid once was." Conditional fee agreements, in the legal jargon, enable a lawyer to take on the financial risk of your case. If they lose, they get nothing but, if they win, they take a cut of the damages, often netting more than they would have from conventional legal fees.

Claimants with no-win, no-fee lawyers may have to pay the other side's legal fees. But it is possible to take out insurance to cover the potential cost of this bill.

'450 Legal Problems Solved' costs £11.99. Call 0800 252100 or visit www.which.net.

'I fought a 14-year legal battle'

Ian Hilton was a bricklayer turned millionaire property developer when his world fell apart. In July 1990, he was offered the chance to develop a plot of land jointly with a man called Steve Jones [not his real name].

After a few meetings with Ian's solicitors - who, as luck would have it, also advised Jones - a £350,000 deal was struck.

What Ian's solicitor hadn't told him was that Jones was a convicted con man. Ian and his wife, Clare, who now live in Blackpool, ended up losing the site plus a bigger development which they had used as collateral in the deal.

"I was devastated and completely ruined by the experience," says Ian, who then decided to sue his solicitors.

The subsequent battle, mostly fought before recent legal reforms, turned into a mammoth struggle. Last year, it was finally referred to the House of Lords, but only because Ian was able to find a solicitor to act on a no-win, no-fee basis.

"Ian and Clare had really been through the mill and I felt this was a case where an injustice had been done," says Neil Jones of Blackpool-based solicitor John Budd & Co.

He eventually won the case on behalf of the Hiltons, bringing a 14-year saga to a close.

Legal aid

Winning legal aid is now harder than ever. The Government's £2bn legal aid budget is fixed and is split between both criminal and civil cases. Criminal cases, where defendants have a right to legal representation, take the lion's share of the cash.

No win, no fee: Reducing spending on legal aid for civil cases is a Government priority - it wants to direct people towards mediation services rather than court action. Moves to extend the type of case where lawyers can offer a no-win, no-fee service are also intended to reduce the need for legal aid.

Means tests: In some circumstances you may be able to claim legal aid. Payments are means-tested and you are most likely to be eligible if you are currently receiving income support, or a similar benefit.

Check eligibility: The easiest way to check eligibility for legal aid is to consult the Community Legal Service. Its members, including Citizens Advice, can explain how the means tests work - and whether your case is potentially eligible for assistance.

Finding a solicitor: Even if you qualify for aid, you may not be able to find a solicitor. The Access to Justice pressure group says the number of solicitors prepared to do family law work for legal aid has fallen to about 3,000, from almost 9,000 in 1999.

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