Dr Stephanie Pywell continues her reflection on the emotional impact of navigating the court system as a litigant in person.
At the beginning of my previous post, I mentioned my belief that most small claims are settled by mediation, which is a form of alternative dispute resolution. Each party puts their case to a mediator, who usually has legal training, and the mediator relays that case to the other party. It seemed obvious that this was how my case should end, because the company and I both ticked the box indicating that we thought the case was suitable for referral to the Small Claims Mediation Service. The following sentence immediately followed the box: ‘Please give your contact details below – if all parties agree to mediation your details will be passed to the small claims mediation team who will contact you to arrange an appointment’. This gave me an underlying confidence that, although the case was causing me a huge amount of stress, it would never actually get to court, and my only loss – apart from sleep and hair – would be £30.
In September, I queried why I had received no communication from the Small Claims Mediation Service; the reply was that ‘information can be found on the internet.’ I discovered that litigants must email the Small Claims Mediation Service to request appointments, and that appointments cannot be moved because of timetabling constraints. I listed the dates on which I would not be available, and then felt anxious every time I arranged anything, in case there was a clash of dates. I need not have worried: I never received a mediation appointment.
As there had been no change to the 6 November deadline by which I had to provide all my documents to the court, and pay the £80 fee, my husband and I spent most of the last Sunday in October writing detailed witness statements. My statement included references to 20 other documents, and I spent three evenings printing and collating three folders of all the documentation. On Friday 3 November, my husband went to the local court to deliver two folders of documents and £80 cash. There was no system for acknowledging receipt – he was told to put everything in ‘the postbox on Level 5’, and he returned home with no proof that he had ever visited the court. I hardly slept for the whole weekend, and constantly thought about the injustice that I assumed would ensue if – as seemed very likely – HMCTS mislaid the cash, the folders, or both. I discovered on Thursday 9 November that everything had been safely received, and that the company had missed the deadline for submitting its documents, so I finally felt confident that I would win.
The company’s solicitor consistently treated me with contempt. He acknowledged only one of my nine emails and, on 13 December, he offered me £352.50 ‘in full and final settlement’. I worked out my costs, including the trial fee, and responded that I would settle for £811.07 in my bank account by 5:00 pm on 20 December, but that I was content to go to court if the company wished to do so. I received no reply.
At 9:53 am on 21 December, the solicitor emailed to state that £705 had been paid into my account, that I was not entitled to anything else, that the case was at an end, and that ‘we have notified the court’. I felt bewildered and panic-stricken, since I did not believe that a defendant’s solicitor could end a case after paying a sum less than the claimant had specified. I was still shaking half-an-hour later, when I received an email from HMCTS stating that the hearing, which was scheduled for 10:00 am the following day, had been transferred to a court over 20 miles away. I suspected that the solicitor was trying to trick me out of not attending the hearing, so that the court would decide in the company’s favour.
My repeated calls to the solicitor’s mobile phone and his firm’s landline were not answered, so, at 4:00 pm – just one business hour before the hearing – feeling desperate, and with no idea what to do, I phoned HMCTS. I explained that I feared I could be penalised for non-attendance at the hearing, and I was told that I had the option of going to court or cancelling, but HMCTS could not tell me whether the case had been cancelled by the defendant. In something close to physical panic, and feeling under huge pressure, I cancelled, because I was afraid that a judge would not be sympathetic to my wasting the court’s time for £80 on the last working day before Christmas.
The next morning, I spoke to one of the solicitor’s firm’s partners on the phone. He was startlingly rude, and repeatedly interrupted me with exclamations including ‘Let me ask the questions!’ and ‘It’s Christmas!’. Twenty-four hours later, he sent me an email, falsely alleging that I had ‘ranted’ on the phone, stating that the solicitor had ‘confirmed that the case was settled’, and ending: ‘I would now prefer to enjoy my holiday.’
I was convinced that the solicitor and partner had breached the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct, so I emailed the SRA on 30 December. The complaints in my first two emails were summarily dismissed, but I persisted in respect of the solicitor; I had insufficient evidence against the partner. An email that I sent on 20 February elicited a response that the SRA would make some enquiries with the firm. On 12 April, the SRA’s letter conceded that the solicitor’s email telling me that the case was over ‘could have been clarified further to avoid uncertainty’. The letter also stated that the SRA had ‘advised [the solicitor] that he may wish to ensure his communications are qualified in full when dealing with litigants in person’. The solicitor had told the SRA that he had ‘miscalculated’ the amount due to me – which I had clearly set out in the only email that had included the bank details that he had used – and that his client would repay the £80 if I could prove that I had paid it. I responded to the SRA, pointing out a number of inconsistencies in the solicitor’s alleged statements. The initial response was, worryingly, a letter to another complainant. I subsequently received my own letter, which brusquely dismissed my outstanding questions.
I abandoned the unequal struggle, and formally requested a refund of the £80. I was unsurprised that the solicitor did not acknowledge my email, but the money was paid into my account on 24 May, 50 weeks after I had started the Money Claim Online. It had been one of the longest periods of low-level stress that I have ever experienced, and I intend never to put myself through such an ordeal again.
The only unusual thing about this case was that, unlike most LiPs, I am highly educated, have a good awareness of the law, family support, financial security and a well-equipped home office. I was fighting for something that I could afford to lose; many LiPs are fighting for things that really matter, such as their livelihoods, their homes or access to their children. I can only imagine the stress that they must feel when they open the envelopes containing – or not containing – repetitive, incomprehensible and error-strewn communications from HMCTS, or receive patronising and hostile emails from lawyers. I hope that, by recounting my humiliating experience, I may help to improve the experience of future LiPs.