Posted by Tracy Norris-Evans, Partner
Litigants in person – will changes to the law make it harder to access justice?
In January, Justice Minister Lord Keen shared his opinion about litigants in person. He insisted that litigants in person would be capable of handling their own personal injury claim, especially if that claim is not of substantial value. This is a significant setback for claimants who seek to access the justice they deserve, and here’s why.
Proposals to increase the small claims limit from £1,000 to £5,000 for road traffic accidents (RTAs) and £2,000 for all other claims is designed to increase the number of litigants in person – a potential disaster for individuals’ access to justice. Off the back of this news, Lord Keen’s suggestion that litigants in person (or, individuals who are representing themselves) should be capable of handling a personal injury claim takes a lot for granted.
The legal process – stacked against litigants in person?
Let’s take the legal process as an example; a litigant in person often has no first-hand knowledge of civil litigation or the Civil Procedural Rules when it comes to making a claim. Regardless of the value of a claim, if you don’t understand these processes, seeking compensation for yourself is bound to be a daunting and stressful experience, as it will not be a level playing field as the defendant is likely to have legal representation.
Furthermore, Lord Keen forgets the financial pressures that a litigant in person will be put under.
With no knowledge of the legal process or civil litigation, a litigant in person might proceed with a claim that has very little merit and end up not just without any compensation, but also liable for their opponent’s legal costs. An opponent may incur a great deal of time and expense responding to a claim, so litigants in person could potentially receive an order made against them saying that they must pay their opponent’s costs. There might even be a possibility that the costs they have been ordered to pay outweigh any amount of compensation they would have received had their case been successful. This is something that could easily be avoided through some basic legal advice from a qualified professional.
Then what happens if a small claim becomes a much more complex legal action? Should a claim suddenly become more valuable, it will move on to a different and lengthier claims process. Having no legal representation at that point may put a litigant in person at a significant disadvantage.
Whilst you may think that the Citizen’s Advice Bureau should be able to offer assistance to litigants in person, and they do, it is unlikely to be specialist personal injury advice.
Clogging up the system
It seems clear that Lord Keen lacks perspective on what litigants in person might experience when they have to take on the legal system themselves. He also doesn’t seem to grasp how this might impact upon the already overworked courts.
Cases are already taking a lot longer than anticipated, with judges needing more time for hearings and case management.
Expanding the requirement for litigants in person will only exacerbate this problem, as judges will need to set more time aside to guide litigants in person through the legal process and ensure they have fair access to justice.
The news and comments about litigants in person coming from our Justice Department should cause concern in the legal profession. It seems clear that individuals who have experienced personal injury, through no fault of their own, are having the legal odds stacked against them. All the while, in most cases, defendants will continue to be represented by their insurer and/or their lawyer resulting in an inequality of arms.
If you think you have a claim for personal injury, and want to find out more, please contact our team
0800 923 2068 Email us