How to tell it to the judge

Defending yourself in court is not an easy feat. But with legal aid shrinking, the number of lay litigants is growing fast. Robert Verkaik looks at DIY lawyers

There are days when David Morris feels as though he's caught up in a Kafka-esque nightmare. As one of the "McLibel Two", he is a litigant in person (LIP) who can't afford legal help but has spent the past five years representing himself in the longest libel case in history.

Mr Morris and his co-defendant, Helen Steel, are being sued by McDonald's for distributing a leaflet highly critical of the fast-food chain. Although their case is exceptional, Mr Morris and Ms Steel are in a legal predicament that has become increasingly common. LIPs now account for one in three cases brought before the Court of Appeal, compared with one in 10 five years ago.

The "McLibel" case began in 1991, leading to 28 pre-trial hearings before the proper start of the trial in June 1994. It is not expected to end until later next year.

Mr Morris, a single parent reliant on state benefits, has spent more time speaking in court than many junior barristers.

"There's no written guidance for litigants in person and there's no obligation on the courts to provide guidance or information about what's going on," Mr Morris warns.

The first pre-trial review, Mr Morris says, was supposed to outline procedure, "but when we asked when we could speak, the judge shouted back, 'If you don't know, you should be represented'. Clearly, the courts are embarrassed by people like us. Members of the public are either there as witnesses or victims." He describes his experience as "extremely stressful and intimidating".

The judiciary is presiding over more and more cases like Mr Morris's, unravelling the mysteries of legal procedures to the lay litigant. In a recent report by a Judges' Council working party into LIPs in the Royal Courts of Justice, council members urged the Bar Council and Law Society to embark on urgent action. The 60-page report recommends the establishment of a "court-based agency" within the RCJ to help LIPs and an "enhanced" Citizens' Advice Bureau. This would be provided on a pro-bono basis by both solicitors and barristers.

Pamela Lloyd-Hart is the manager of the RCJ CAB. She is normally the first point of contact for unrepresented litigants. She says their number has recently "escalated". Some appear in court for the very first time without any documentation. "In these cases," she says, "we will go through the salient points they need to put before the judge. If they can't express it themselves, then we will write it down."

Where LIPs have not followed correct procedures, says Mrs Lloyd-Hart, judges will often adjourn cases for half an hour so that they can get help from CAB advisers.

Some LIPs receive help from other sympathetic lawyers. Keir Starmer, a human rights barrister of Doughty Street Chambers, continues to provide free help and advice to both Mr Morris and Ms Steel. Mr Starmer gave the few hours of Green Form advice at the start of their case. After that no further legal aid is available in libel actions.

Both defendants have had to get used to performing quickly a variety of legal tasks, from photocopying to cross-examination.

As the material mounts up - 20 lever-arch files of documents so far - Mr Starmer says it is impossible for the defendants to keep on top of the material without proper back-up. In an adversarial system he would like to see a duty being placed on the judge to explain the legal procedures to the LIP.

In response to the growing numbers of DIY litigants, the National Council for Civil Liberties is publishing a guide to defending oneself in court. It has been written by Michael Randle, one of two men who helped the spy George Blake to escape in the Sixties; he then went on successfully to defend himself when he was acquitted on criminal charges brought 25 years later.

Mr Starmer believes the reason so many more people are now taking their own cases to court is because legal aid is "shrinking" and solicitors are just too expensive.

John Wadham of Liberty - Mr Randle's solicitor, who advised him during the trial - identifies another group that chooses to represent itself: "There are also politically motivated individuals being prosecuted for their activities, for example, road protesters."

Some people clearly feel there are advantages to dispensing with lawyers in court. Michael Randle managed to convince the jury that he should be acquitted of both helping a prisoner to escape and harbouring a prisoner, despite admissions made in a later book about the affair.

Says Mr Wadham: "He knew the case backwards and was passionate about the decision to free George Blake and that can only come from the person concerned."

David Morris, who has been denied a jury, sees few benefits to being an LIP, but says: "The reality of the dispute is more honest when real people are having the arguments rather than one smooth lot of barristers on one side and one smooth lot on the other."

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

    £850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

    Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

    £45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Finance Manager - Bank - Leeds - £300/day

    £250 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Finance Manager - Accountant - Bank...

    Compliance Officer - CF10, CF11, Compliance Oversight, AML, FX

    £100000 - £120000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: A leading fi...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn