In the UK an individual is entitled to represent themselves in court. This right is a necessity of a civil society as it would clearly be wrong if somebody who could not afford lawyers fees was unable to represent themselves; this would lead to the poor being unfairly prejudiced under the law.
There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, particularly in relation to criminal offences: you could not, for example, have an accused rapist being able to interrogate the victim in the witness box.
Nowadays there are an increasing number of people choosing to represent themselves, becoming a ‘litigant in person’. This is a result of two particular factors: the rising cost of litigation, and the government cuts to the legal aid budget.
Despite changes in recent years to the civil procedural rules encouraging early settlement and ways of reducing costs, bringing or indeed defending a claim is still an extremely expensive business.
Recent government spending cuts have meant that the availability of legal aid has shrunk in the past few years, although it may still be available to you in certain areas of law if you meet the criteria.
Anybody unsure if they meet the legal aid requirements should make an appointment with a legal aid solicitor.
Pros and cons of representing yourself
An individual thinking of representing themselves should consider whether it is wise to do so. In addition to the obvious fact that their knowledge of the law is likely to be limited, if the other side is represented by a solicitor, you could be at a serious disadvantage.
There are often strict procedural deadlines which must be met in order to bring or defend certain claims. If you miss a procedural deadline you are likely to face cost consequences, and could have your case dismissed.
It is always recommended that, even if you are looking to act as a litigant in person, you receive some legal advice at the start of court proceedings.
Advantages of using a solicitor
The advantage of using a solicitor is that they have an understanding of the law both in theory and in practice. A solicitor will, therefore, be able to advise on the likely outcome at trial, which may allow you to reach a compromise with the other side and save money.
A solicitor would tell you that although his fees may be expensive, in the long run it will be cost effective, because he will be able to advise on the best possible outcome and then help you achieve it.
There can be no doubt however that solicitor’s fees can be expensive, and sometimes disproportionately so. It is important, therefore, to ensure you have a clear agreement with your solicitor as to their exact instructions and charging rates.
These will normally be sent out in a client care letter, which the solicitor will send to his client. This should be read extremely carefully before signing as a solicitor will rely on this when charging you.
Some solicitors will offer fixed-fee work, or at least fixed-fee interviews at the start of the case to give you an approximate idea of where you stand. A solicitor may also agree to put a ‘ceiling figure’ on the limit he will charge. All of these options should be explored if looking to keep fees low.
However, acting in person is not simply about saving costs (if you do end up saving at all): representing yourself can be an extremely stressful situation and can also be very time consuming which may affect your work and family. All of the above should be considered before you decide to act in person.