Me v him: legal, decent and free

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MY PERSONAL brushes with the legal system have hitherto inclined me to the jaundiced view that it has little to do with justice or truth. Lawyers seemed a proudly and deliberately archaic male succession; a crocodile of murmuring judges and bombastic barristers whose robes belonged in musty dressing-up chests and whose ludicrous wigs recall a flea-ridden rather than a splendid past.

Their language, their arcane, jargon-ridden and orotund tones, seemed intentionally obscure. They were ridden with prejudice and elitism. Yet they charged vast sums for their services and repelled all attempts to shed light upon their professional practices. They would be an irrelevant tourist attraction, rather like the Beefeaters at the Tower of London or for that matter the celebrated ravens, were it not that the future happiness of innocent human beings often hangs on their deliberations.

There are, thank heavens, a growing number of splendid exceptions. Women and ethnic minorities are blowing a healthy gale through the dozy Gillray and Rowlandson world of the law.

But soft you, a few more words before you set outraged quill to paper and search the precedents for libel. I said, in my first sentence, hitherto. Something happened last week to change my jaundiced view. I won a case brought against me in the Small Claims Court. A tenant who had rented my cottage in France last year complained that it wasn't what he had expected and claimed pounds 1,000 compensation. His case was dismissed by the judge, and I didn't pay anything. My conversion comes not from the exultant, air-punching vindication of being in the right (although that was satisfying). It is due more to my admiration for the straightforward, not just cheap but free court procedure.

From the moment the case was brought, all the information I received was written in a model of simple English. So clear is their language that it has won the seal of approval from the Plain English Campaign. That was the first revelation.

The second was the discovery that the court officials were friendly and helpful. They explained what would happen and how I could prepare myself, and reassured me that I could speak for myself and did not need - indeed, should not use - a legal bod to represent me.

The third was the informal nature of the court premises. The atmosphere in the (admittedly crampt and narrow) corridor where we all waited for our cases to be heard was almost light-hearted. And the fourth was the friendly and unpompous manner of the judge himself. He wore neither robes nor wig. He explained the procedure as if for the very first time - though he must say the same words several times a day - and then left the plaintiff and defendant (me) to go ahead and explain themselves to each other. He looked at the evidence each side presented, listened carefully to our arguments, stopped us when we began to repeat ourselves, summed up accurately, and delivered a judgement that was crystal-clear and unequivocal. It took almost a year for the case to come to court, but in every other respect the proceedings were straightforward and unintimidating, and the judgment - but I would say that, wouldn't I? - fair.

I believe I would have said the same thing even if I had lost. For I was treated, and so was the plaintiff, like a serious person who was not likely to lie, cheat or break down under pressure. We were given ample opportunity to state our case and present our own evidence. It is tempting to conclude that the higher courts squander vast amounts of time and money in settling civil disputes that could be sorted out more simply and - this is the crux of the matter - with more justice and more awareness of human behaviour if the litigants represented themselves.

Yes, it is a nerve-racking experience to speak up in court: even in the Small Claims Court, with just pounds 1,000 at stake. I lost more than one night's sleep worrying about it. How much more terrifying it is to give evidence or be cross-examined in one of the high courts. But why should people not be coached to present their own case, relying only on lawyers for specific points of law? Why shouldn't the court provide such lawyers for everyone, just as the NHS does (or did) provide surgeons and consultants for everyone, and state education provides (or did) teachers, lecturers and learned professors for everyone? Why should the higher courts of law be either the province of the rich, or a huge drain upon the public purse?

Rather than using professional lawyers skilled in obfuscation and evasion, it would be a worthwhile experiment in civil cases (I am not talking about major crimes or fraud) to let each litigant speak up on their own behalf. A judge could decide after seeing them present their own arguments whether husband or wife was entitled to custody of the children, who deserved a greater share of the family pile, or a more generous award after a car, medical or workplace accident.

The Inland Revenue is about to let us submit our own estimates of how much tax we should pay. Why should the courts not also treat us like responsible adults, and let us plead our own cause?