Representing yourself in court – the pros and cons

Representing yourself in court may seem like a good idea if you are concerned about legal costs but it may turn out be a false economy and cause a lot of stress.

It pays to look at all the pros and cons before going ahead.

It is possible to represent yourself and win, but the sad fact is that you just as could easily come unstuck, lose money and create a lot of heartache for yourself.

Navigating the complexities of legal proceedings can be a daunting task, requiring a deep understanding of the law and court procedures. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go ahead but it does mean you need to do your homework first and decide if it really is for you.

But let’s be positive and start with the pros.

Pros of representing yourself

The most obvious reason for representing yourself is that you feel there is no other choice.

Legal Aid has been cut to the bone in the UK over the last 10 years, meaning there are fewer and fewer cases that enable you to get free or partly free legal representation.

That’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Even so, it’s worth spending some time working out whether your claim is worth the effort involved in representing yourself in what can be a very intimidating atmosphere in court.

It might be better to walk away, unless your case is so important that it cannot be set aside.

Saving on legal fees

Representing yourself provides the obvious benefit of saving on legal fees. Professional legal representation doesn’t come cheap and it’s true that the costs can soon add up.

Before you proceed, however, get some quotes from lawyers specialising in the legal issue you’re facing.

Once you know how much a lawyer would charge to represent you, you’ll know exactly how much you’ll save by representing yourself.

This is important because it may turn out to be less than you think. It will help you decide whether the hassle of venturing into whole a new world of complex concepts and arcane procedures is worth the savings you might make.

Keep control of your case

Another pro might be that you can have complete control of the way your case is presented. In reality, of course, a lawyer would generally conduct your case according to your wishes, as long as those wishes comply with professional and ethical standards.

If you go it alone though, you may like the fact that there is no bothersome third party telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.

This may suit you if you feel your case should be handled in a certain way that you think is important. 

You’ll be a litigant in person

If you do represent yourself you will be known as a ‘litigant in person’ when you appear in court.

You will not only be the claimant or the defendant, you will also be your own lawyer.

That could be a difficult double role to play, which brings us to the old joke, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It goes along the lines of “anyone who represents himself in court has a fool for a client”. Another variation is that “anyone who represents themselves in court has an idiot for a lawyer”.

Coming up to modern times and far more seriously, Francine Ryan, Director of the Open Justice Centre at the Open University, had this to say in the Citizens Advice Standing alone report 2015: “18,000 people represent themselves in court every month. Nine out of ten say it adversely affects their life.”

Michael Olatokun, Trustee Law for Life, had this to say about representing yourself in court. “It’s a bit like as a non-dentist doing your own tooth extraction. It’s quite likely you’re going to mess up a significant part of your life forever.”

Lizzie Iron, Head of Service Support Through Court, said: “One of the problems of people who find themselves facing a court process, is that their only experience of it is what they might have seen on television.”  Of course, the reality is very different; not nearly as exciting and far more complex.

This is not exactly what a prospective litigant in person would wants to hear but let’s look at why such a warning exists.

Cons of representing yourself

While representing yourself may seem like a cost-saving option, it can also go horribly wrong due to the complexities of the law.

There are lots of people offering advice on how to represent yourself and win but they don’t tend to be lawyers or legal experts themselves. Often their advice is based on their own experience of having won a case. But the law is not a one-size fits all.

Every case, even in the same area of law, is different and so tactics that won in one case may be inappropriate in another, even though they may seem closely connected.

Advice on how to represent yourself understandably focuses on researching the law and how it applies to your case, researching court procedure, how to prepare court documents, how to present the case, how to challenge the opposing side’s evidence and so on, often at great length.

While this may be good advice, you have to ask yourself, how realistic is it. Will you have the time to do all that research? And even if you do, will it really make you a match for the opposing side’s lawyer, who will have had many years of training and experience.

If you spent several hours, days, weeks practising tennis, would it make you a match for Roger Federer? Well, you may find yourself facing the legal equivalent of Federer across the court room.

Instead of genning up on the law, you might be better off doing overtime at work, or doing a second part-time job for a while, and putting the extra money you earn towards paying for professional legal representation.

So instead of asking, can you represent yourself in court, it might be more helpful to ask, should you represent yourself. That may provide a very different and more helpful answer.

Legal Expertise and Knowledge

Or perhaps we should say, your lack of legal expertise and knowledge.

The legal system is complex, with specific rules, procedures, and terminology that can be difficult to navigate without proper legal training.

The Civil Procedure Rules is a 6,500 page guide to how to navigate the courts in England and Wales.

The law is so complex that even expert lawyers won’t step outside their chosen field. So, an employment lawyer won’t take on a family law case and vice versa.

If they don’t feel up to the task, you may ask yourself why you think you are.

Lawyers don’t play nice

Without a comprehensive knowledge of the law in general and how it relates to their case in particular, litigants in person are at a significant disadvantage when presenting their case.

The law is generally fair but the same can’t always be said for lawyers.

They may be nice people in their everyday lives but when they’re in court, they are there to win. They have to protect their client’s interests just as you are trying to protect yours.

They will look for every weakness they can find in you and your case. When they find, and rest assured they will, they will then exploit it to the full.

They won’t hesitate to make you squirm and look foolish if they can undermine your case. It can be a painful experience.

Emotionally involved in your case

The law is dispassionate and objective. It doesn’t do emotion and court procedure is usually dry and detached.

Your case may mean the world to you as a matter of principle but to everyone else but to the judge, lawyers and court staff, it’s just another day at the office.

You may become passionate and animated by the arguments but your opposing lawyer will remain calm and rational. If you start to get angry, they may happily try to make you more angry in an attempt to make you say something that may damage your case.

Your passion, no matter how heart felt, will not help you in court. It will hinder you. To win, you will have to exercise enormous self-control. If you fail to do so you will almost certainly lose. If you feel you may struggle with this, forget about representing yourself and get one of those dispassionate lawyers we’ve just been talking about.

You may lose perspective

For many litigants in person, going to court to fight their case is a matter of principle. They may feel outraged that they have been treated unfairly and feel determined that justice should be done.

That may be admirable but it’s not always practical or realistic.

There may come a time when any cause, however noble, has to be abandoned. This might because you are actually wrong in your interpretation of the law. Or it could be that you have been treated unfairly but there’s nothing the law can do about it. It could be that you are right but you don’t have enough evidence to prove it.

This can be hard for people who represent themselves to accept because they are so emotionally involved in the cause.

If you have a lawyer, they will act as a rational adviser at a time when rational advice is what you most need. It’s not uncommon for litigants representing themselves to soldier on regardless, even after the cause is lost. All they achieve is more costs and more heartache.

Case study of a litigant in person

Dr Stephanie Pywell took legal action against a supplier who was in breach of contract and refused to return her deposit. Dr Pywell is senior lecturer in law at the Open University so we can assume she knows as much about the law as most solicitors and barristers. You might also assume that knowledge would be a great help when she represented herself in court as litigant in person. But was it?

Here’s what she had to say about her experiences in a BBC/Open University documentary.

“I rather arrogantly assumed that it would be a breeze.

“It took a year basically to get the deposit back and all the court and hearing fees. I found it much more stressful than I had dreamed possible. I wasn’t sleeping properly and was quite startled that my knowledge of the law was as little use as it was in the face of procedure.

“Access to justice actually involves knowledge of procedure. It has little to do with the law and everything to do with which bit of which form to send to which person at which time.

“I deeply regret that the system made it so difficult for me. It was so stressful.

I don’t regret it because I believe in justice and in the end I got justice.”

Represent yourself at your peril

From a lack of legal expertise and inadequate case preparation to procedural errors and limited negotiation skills, representing yourself in court is a potential minefield.

Think long and hard before going ahead because going to court could easily take over your life for a year or more. 

To paraphrase legendary football manager Brian Clough: if you’re thinking of representing yourself in court, go to bed and sleep on it. If you still want to represent yourself when you get up the next morning, go back to bed.

Useful Links

Guidance for litigants in person

Courts and tribunals advice for litigants in person

Legal choices on self-representation