When it's a case of do-it-yourself justice

In a spot of bother and can't afford a lawyer? Perhaps you should try being your own advocate. Marie Ryan finds out how to do it
McDonald's must be feeling squashed somewhere between a rock and a hard place. Already enmeshed in the longest-running civil court case in British history as a result of suing two unemployed environmental campaigners for libel, the fast-food giant multinational is now having to contend with the launch of an Internet site dedicated to its detractors.

Mike Love, head of communications at McDonald's, says: "We're not planning any course of action as far as McSpotlight is concerned." In fact, he argues that the development might even be to the company's advantage. "It certainly doesn't hinder our case in court, far from it. It demonstrates to the courts that the allegations continue to be repeated."

Supporters of the defendants Helen Steel and Dave Morris see it differently. An interactive library employing text, graphics and video gives far more detail about the allegations than the original leaflet which prompted the court case.

Because there is no legal aid for libel trials, Ms Steel and Mr Morris had no choice but to represent themselves. In retrospect, this has turned out to their advantage, the costs incurred by them are but a tiny fraction of the estimated pounds 5m-pounds 10m bill facing McDonald's.

Dispensing with a lawyer is a route down which a record number of civil litigants are being forced by restrictions on Legal Aid. Last July, following the release of figures showing a more than threefold increase in litigants in person (LIPs) in the civil division of the Appeal Court between 1990 and 1994, senior judges expressed concern about disadvantages faced by LIPs faced with complex procedures and little support.

A recently published book by Michael Randle, How to Defend Yourself in Court, while focusing on criminal rather than civil cases, seeks to address the dearth of information in this area.

Mr Randle's book draws on his own experience. In 1966, he and a fellow peace campaigner, Pat Pottle, helped to spring the double-agent George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs, where he was serving a 42-year sentence for treason. They had met him four years earlier when they were jailed for organising a demonstration at an US airbase. Appalled at the severity of Blake's sentence, they and their co-conspirator, Sean Bourke, conceived a plan to get him out. Twenty-four years later, shortly after they published a book in which they admitted their involvement, they found themselves in court for the crime. Electing to defend themselves, their subsequent acquittal by the jury surprised even them.

Mr Randle sees distinct advantages in going it alone. "For a start," he says, "your lack of experience means you're often given extra leeway by the judge and you can make points and put arguments that barristers can't." The judge presiding over their case confirmed this when he told the two that had any counsel defended them the way they were defending themselves, he would have reported them to the Bar's disciplinary committee.

Mr Randle and Mr Pottle were seasoned campaigners used to justifying breaking the law on the grounds of principle, and were able to convince the jury that moral conviction underpinned their act, even if it was technically a crime. Yes, we did it, they said, but in the circumstances it was the right thing to do. While this worked for them, hired counsel may be reluctant to use such a high-risk approach.

"Lawyers are often looking for ways in which they can reinterpret your motivation in order to provide you with a better defence or stronger mitigation," argues Mr Randle. "You find them saying things you don't like, but you can't just jump up in court and say, 'Hang on, I don't believe that.' At least if you're speaking for yourself, you're in control."

Helen Steel concurs. "One of the good things about defending yourself is that it's not simply another case, as it might be for a lawyer, but one you feel passionately about."

But the process is not without pitfalls. Surveys show that unrepresented defendants are much more likely to be convicted and to be given a heavier sentence. "It is usually in a defendant's best interest to leave advocacy to the advocates," warns Geoffrey Robertson QC. Moreover, as Mr Randle points out in the book, being emotionally involved can cloud your judgement. The detachment that a lawyer brings is not to be lightly foregone.

The decision to defend yourself should not be based on the strength of your case or the weakness of your bank balance alone. One's personal qualities should come into the equation. Mr Randle is clearly articulate and confident. "You do need to have a certain confidence," he admits. "You have to be able to sum up your case and you need to have a good grasp of your material."

If it's a long case, some of these abilities will develop with practice, but while you're learning, some judges can seem less than sympathetic.

Ms Steel has felt some along the way were more receptive to arguments from lawyers than from her and her co-defendant. "Even if we'd researched something in law books or we'd had advice from a helpful lawyer, if we were saying it, it just didn't seem to carry as much weight."

Although she has still to come out the other side, Ms Steel has no regrets about taking on the British legal system. "It has been difficult, but to other people in a similar situation I would say, go ahead and do it yourselves."

And, as Michael Randle says, if you go down, at least you will go down fighting.

'How to Defend Yourself in Court' is available for pounds 4.99 plus 50p P&P from the Civil Liberties Trust (0171-403 3888).