A year as a litigant in person – and why I’ll never be one again

In Part I of this guest post Dr Stephanie Pywell reflects on her experience as a litigant in person. The insights she offers will be particularly useful to OU students working on public-facing Open Justice projects such as the advice clinic, Citizens Advice and the Personal Support Unit. 

Part I

This is the first of two posts reflecting on a year during which I was a user of the civil court system in England and Wales, and the emotional effects of my experience.  I have an LLB and a PhD in law, and I write about the English legal system, so I knew (or thought I knew) that the procedures for small claims – those for less than £10,000 – are simple, and that cases are resolved quickly. I also believed that most small claims are settled by alternative dispute resolution – probably, in this case, mediation – rather than actually going to court. This experience has taught me that there is a huge gulf between academic theory and reality.

I knew that I had a strong case. On 1 February 2017, my husband and I had placed an order marked ‘URGENT: 6–8 weeks’ for a composite front door fixed within a uPVC arch. 15 weeks later, a fitter had arrived with an arch that did not fit our house, and could not be adjusted. The company had therefore not fulfilled its obligations under the contract, and we were entitled to a refund of our £645 deposit. After three phone messages and three signed-for letters, the company’s managing director (MD) had failed to contact us to discuss the refund. On 6 June, in accordance with the warning in our third letter, we started a legal claim to recover the money.

My confidence that I could handle this matter was reinforced by the ease of starting a Money Claim Online – the form was short and simple. Its only disconcerting feature was that there was no space for a second name so, although my husband and I had jointly entered the contract, only one of us could be formally identified as the claimant. I have more legal knowledge than he does, and I do virtually all our household admin, so there was no debate. Less than half-an-hour later, I had become a litigant in person (LiP), because I had not instructed a solicitor or Chartered Legal Executive to pursue the claim on my behalf.

LiPs are rapidly increasing in number – due largely to the £350 million reduction in the civil Legal Aid budget in 2013 – but very little research has been done into their experiences. Lord Dyson, a former Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice, recognised this trend; he wrote in 2012, in his Foreword to A Handbook for Litigants in Person:

Access to justice is a right not a privilege… Over the last ten years there has however been an increase in the number of individuals who have, for various reasons, pursued and defended claims on their own behalf: they have been and are litigants in person (or self-represented litigants). It is anticipated that in the years to come the number of litigants in person will increase and perhaps will do so sharply.

Most of the scant academic literature focusses on LiPs’ effect on the civil justice system, rather than the civil justice system’s effect on LiPs, and this post is an attempt at redressing that imbalance.

On 8 June, the MD telephoned. He told my husband that the door and arch had been scrapped, then offered either a refund of our £645 deposit, or £300 off the total cost. My husband said we also wanted the £60 claim fee, since it was the claim had prompted the MD to contact us. The MD said ‘I’m not paying that’, so my husband said that he would have to discuss the matter with me. As we had lost all confidence in the company and the MD, and there was no door and arch that fitted our house, we wrote to the MD requesting a refund of £705.

I received my first envelope from HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) on 22 June.

A striking feature of this, and much of the subsequent, correspondence was the number of errors that it contained. As well as mistakes in spelling, punctuation, Spurious Capital Letters and grammar, there were duplicated letters in the same post, the inclusion of a long-outdated 0844 telephone number for a court, and the omission of some important enclosures. The most significant omission was the response pack that I was instructed to return because the company decided to sue me by counterclaiming for £2,932.50, allegedly because my husband and I had not allowed them to return to our home to fit the (non-existent, non-adjustable) ‘adjusted arch’. My first phone call to HMCTS elicited a promise that the pack would be sent; eight days later, scared that my (unspecified but limited) time to reply was running out, I rang again, and was told that I could simply print my response on plain paper.

Much of the correspondence would not have been accessible or comprehensible to someone without at least a rudimentary knowledge of legal procedure. Documents had titles including: ‘Notice that Acknowledgment of Service has been filed’, ‘Defence and Counterclaim (specified amount)’ and ‘Notice of Allocation to the Small Claims Track (Hearing)’. Although some of the forms were written in plain English, some seemed designed to confuse naïve readers. Someone who knows nothing about the law has to remember that the person who starts the claim is the claimant, and the person against whom the claim is made is the defendant, so they would find these sentences (on the Notice of Transfer of Proceedings) baffling:

As you will be responding as the defendant to the counterclaim, please read and complete the response forms listing yourself as the defendant. This does not apply to the Directions Questionnaire, where you should still list yourself as the claimant.

My defence to the counterclaim was checked by a friend who is a barrister, and his first reaction was that I had been incorrect to refer to myself as ‘the defendant’. If even practising lawyers can be confused by the terminology, there is little hope that LiPs will master it.

I encountered some examples of incompetence in basic clerical matters, too. HMCTS lost my Directions Questionnaire and requested another copy of it, but they did not send me a replacement form or instructions about how to download one. Fortunately, I had a scanned copy. After I had printed and forwarded another copy, I received notice that the hearing was scheduled for Monday 4 December, a date on which the twice-sent Directions Questionnaire clearly stated that I would not be available. The hearing was re-scheduled for Friday 22 December, but HMCTS did not change the deadline of 6 November for the submission of detailed documents, and the payment of an £80 trial fee, to the court.

I felt as though I had three opponents: the company and its non-responsive MD, the company’s unhelpful solicitor (who ignored my four offers to split the claim fee and settle immediately for £675), and HMCTS, which I no longer trusted to do anything properly. I spent much of the time feeling very stressed and anxious, I dreaded the arrival of every day’s post, and I was nervous every time I opened my email inbox. I lost a huge amount of sleep, my stomach lurched every time I heard any court-related words (which is very often, given that I’m a legal academic), and my hair started to fall out. I told only two family members and four very close friends what was going on, because I was afraid that I would cry if I had to recount the story to anyone else.

Everything that I have described so far happened before 11 October 2017; I had no idea how much longer things could – and would – last …