Today’s the day legal aid, for many people, died – and access to competent legal advice became a bit further out of reach.
Citizens Advice have outlined the changes to legal aid which come into effect as of 1 April 2013. Not only has the scope of eligible cases been drastically reduced, the income threshold for eligibility has shrunk. The Government’s own website will hopefully keep up with the changes.
To mark this auspicious day, the Bar Council have published, “A Guide to Representing Yourself in Court“. It’s a 74 page romp through most of what you need to know for your day in court.
Because this Guide cannot hope to be all things to all people, there are some omissions. For example, the Guide’s not likely to help litigants in person work out whether they have a case that is likely to win. The Guide further doesn’t deal with the matter of costs in much depth – the general rule is the loser pays the other guy’s and their own legal costs. The Guide also doesn’t deal with with how to settle cases – or the fact that many cases are prudently settled before a Trial.
But then again, no single publication can cover every aspect of the law you may encounter – and as the Guide helpfully notes at page 5, many barristers have undertaken Public Access training, qualifying them to act for lay-people without the need of going through a solicitor first. Approaching a barrister direct can be a more cost-effective solution to obtaining legal advice than instructing a solicitor.
While I do think the Guide is written in accessible English for lay-people, there are, perhaps, some points that could be made more explicitly.
The following are based on some observations I’ve made at the County Court, Employment Tribunal, Leasehold Valuation Tribunal (LVT) and the Magistrates’ Court of what does and doesn’t work:
Dress for Success
Don’t rock up to court in a track-suit, particularly not one stained by the bottle of cola you’re swigging from in front of the judge.
It’s not necessarily about wearing a suit and tie (if you have one) it’s about looking clean, honest and small-c conservative.
The aspiration should be “business attire” rather than “championship football”.
A shave and a hair-cut does make a difference. Just because many lawyers don’t do this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
Standing in the Witness Box
Whether you’re in the box or sat at a table, at some stage, you will need to tell the judge your side of the story. Sometimes, in some matters, your side of the story will be in your Witness Statement and you won’t have to say anything further.
It’s more likely that you will have to say something and it’s important to leave aside any anger you may feel and to be open and candid. Trust me; the truth will out and credibility counts.
For example, comments such as, “Were you there?” when you’re being cross-examined, don’t trump the other side’s lawyer or make you look clever. The rest of us think you’re being defensive – and we wonder why.
Watch the attitude
Smirking, snickering and open contempt of judges, lawyers and even your opponent are to be discouraged. This isn’t America and you’re not on the set of Judge Judy.
Just because a local authority officer may indulge in this sort of behaviour doesn’t mean you should.
If nothing else, the judge needs to hear both sides of the story. The judge can’t do that if s/he’s looking at you and wondering why you seem to be constitutionally incapable of controlling yourself.
Focus on the issue
This is tougher than it sounds. In a Criminal case, the issue may be, “Yes, I hit him, but I did so in self-defence“. In a Civil case, it may be the breach of a contract.
Focus in on the issue and gather as much evidence as possible in respect of that issue. Avoid the temptation of indulging in conspiracy theories and character assassination. The judge will want to hear about this particular event – and why, on this occasion, you should get what you want.
There’s an old saying:
“The man who represents himself has a fool for a client”.
It’s difficult to be objective about your own case.
Even if you find that because of legal aid cuts, you have to represent yourself in court – it’s worth getting advice on the strengths and weaknesses of your case before you get there.
Your killer point – the point which you think will torpedo the other side and make you a 21st century Erin Brockovich- may, in law, have no significance and add nothing to your case.
Before exposing yourself to the risk of costs (and a monumental waste of time, effort and emotion), find out from a qualified legal professional whether you have a case worth fighting.
Now that the scope of Public Access has been widened, it may be time for the public to think about barristers in a new light – and to get a barrister’s advice/opinion before the day of the Trial/Hearing/Mediation.