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."

Independent Partners; Do you need financial advice on your investments, pension or insurance? Book a free consultation with an independent Financial Adviser at VouchedFor.co.uk

Sport
Super BowlAfter Katy Perry madness it's back to The Independent's live coverage of Super Bowl 49!
News
See what Twitter had to say about the first half of the Super Bowl
News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
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

    Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Product Manager - (Product Marketing, Financial Services)

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Marke...

    Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

    £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

    Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

    £23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

    Day In a Page

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

    They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
    A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

    Dropout generation failed by colleges

    £800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
    Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
    Shazam! Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

    Shazam: Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch