Representing yourself at Court

Dated:

The Bar Council the body representing barristers in England and Wales has published a guide to representing yourself in Court. The Bar has taken this step because legal aid has been withdrawn in England and Wales for many areas of civil law including family, welfare, housing and debt. Judges are warning that these changes will mean that hundreds of thousands of people will have no choice but to represent themselves in Court.

Representing yourself in court

Maura McGowan QC is Chairman of the Bar for 2013. She was interviewed by Winifred Robinson on Radio 4’s daily consumer programme.

Ms McGowan says that the typical cases in which we will see an increase in litigants in person are, for example, family where parents are arguing about who the children will live with after a divorce or the breakup of a relationship. In debt cases, it’s where you fall behind with your mortgage repayments, or where your debts have built up and bankruptcy, even on a voluntary basis, is an option. Benefits, with the changes that are coming into effect many people may lose benefits to which they are entitled – how do they bring a claim to reinstate the benefits they are about to lose. It’s those sorts of areas that cross a very wide spectrum.

Ms Robinson pointed out that the coalition had promised that they would beef up citizens’ advice and other support services before the changes came into effect but Ms McGowan says that this does not seem to have happened. That, in fact the Bar is being told that advice centres are being closed rather than opened up. She acknowledged that there are some very good advice centres, that continue to exist, and some of which the Bar consulted in the preparation of the guide, but Ms McGowan is not sure whether the average person who finds themselves with a claim, or defending a claim against them, and who would have had legal aid up until last week, is going to find it all that easy to find voluntary or free help to advise on what to do next.

Ms McGowan went on to explain that the guide is designed to help those people who have no experience of public speaking or of standing up for themselves, but who will find themselves having to do so in Court, which is a very intimidating atmosphere. The guide is designed to help people who are setting off to go to Court, to remind people to take all their documents, put all their documents in order and to label their documents because it will make it easier to find them when they need to. So it is very basic in some respects although it has more detailed pieces of information in specific areas. It’s a short guide as it has to cover a lot of things.

Ms Robinson pointed out that you would still need to understand the law, which a person representing themselves would not know. This was acknowledged by Ms McGowan who went on to explain that one of the things they simply could not do, and didn’t try to do, is put together a series of text books about the law. It wouldn’t have been practical or of any use and which is why there are links in the guide to help people. There is a suggestion (and that’s all it is) that if all they can do is find say £50 then they can speak to a solicitor, barrister or legal executive and find out the basic tenants of the point that they are taking or defending.

Ms Robinson suggested that people would hope that the legal profession would begin to tailor their services to the new reality although she acknowledged that there are some solicitors who will allow you to set ceiling and will give you advice in that window. Ms McGowan confirmed that solicitors have always been able to do that and that some have always done it. She confirmed that barristers can now do that too in the sense that people can go to them directly. Ms McGowan on to say that we are all having to adapt to a quickly changing world and that’s why the Bar has put the guide together.

The guide is free, it’s available on the Bar website and the Bar is sending a copy to every MP in the country so it’s available in their surgeries for those people who have not otherwise heard of it.

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