Litigants in Person: Things to be mindful of
In our lives we have different kinds of relationships. In my professional life as a family law solicitor my relationships are with my Clients, their non legal advisors, the Court, barristers who represent my Clients in Court to name just a few. However, in recent years there is a growing number of people representing themselves in family Court proceedings. These are called Litigants in Person (LIPS). For a family law solicitors a relationship with a Litigant in Person can be quite demanding.
My Clients understand that time is charged for their contact with me, whether it is by telephone or in person and they take that into account in deciding to phone me once or 10 times in any one day. However, a LIP is under no such constraints and can telephone and bombard me with emails. My Client, quite understandably, can be very upset that there is a cost to him/her for my time in speaking to their former partner. I have to explain that there has to be a certain amount of contact, particularly if there are Court proceedings, as there would be if their former partner had instructed a solicitor and I would be communicating with that solicitor. My contact with the LIP needs to be limited to what is reasonably required and the LIP can become frustrated and angry. I have to explain that I am subject to my Client’s instructions and cannot engage in detailed communication backward and forward. For example, if the Court proceedings are in relation to contact with a child, and I represent the Mother, if the Father has solicitors they will usually write with a detailed proposals for contact to cover weekdays, weekends, holidays and occasional days such as birthdays and Mother’s and Father’s Day. A LIP may write many times seeing no reason why they shouldn’t correspond just in relation to contact the following week and then again about contact the next weekend, and go backward and forward on the times of contact and whether a telephone call can be half an hour later. The role of the Court can also be frustrating for my Client because if one person is represented by solicitors and the other is not, the Court will direct that the solicitor carries out actions which the other person, if represented, would normally be instructed to carry out. For example, just prior to a Court Hearing all the papers for that Court Hearing have to be prepared and put together for the Judge. This is usually the task of the person who has made the Application to the Court. However, for a LIP that task will be directed by the Court to be done by the legally represented person. Inevitably, there is significant cost in this kind of work, and my Clients can find it upsetting that this is a cost they are having to bear. The Court will not expect the LIP to receive copies at no cost and s/he can be required to pay the cost of copying but this does not take into account the cost in preparing the documents in an orderly way, with sections and pagination.
LIPS do not always understand that I can provide them with information, but I cannot give advice. Therefore, if they ask me what time is the Court Hearing I can, of course, say 4.00 p.m. I can say to them that we will be arriving at 3.00 p.m. for discussion before the Hearing. However, I cannot say to them that they should attend at 3.00 p.m. if the Court have simply directed a 4.00 p.m. Hearing.
For myself, I can also be on the receiving end of a “no holds barred” approach by a LIP with quite unpleasant and abusive emails, often taking out their disappointment and emotional upset on me. It can be quite hard looking at my emails on a Sunday evening in preparation for Monday morning and receiving one saying “I hate all f***ing lawyers”.
In financial proceedings, both parties have to provide all of their financial documentation. Solicitors put these together in lever arch files in an appropriate order. A LIP may deliver his/her documents to my office in carrier bags jumbled together. Again, it raises the question of who is to bear the cost of me having to put these into order. I can then find that when I ask questions on the documentation, which is a usual part of the financial process, a LIP tells me that s/he has not kept any copies and gave me the only one. Copies then have to be provided back to the LIP to answer the questions.
The high emotions that run in family law cases can also mean that a LIP can be focussed on a small matter. For example, his favourite cufflinks may have gone missing in sorting out items in the house when one or other has moved out. He may then accuse his Wife of having taken them. If my Client is the Wife she may explain that she has absolutely not taken his cufflinks. He can then refuse to answer any emails about the Court process or the steps that are required to be taken until he has his cufflinks back. These are just a few examples, but it has certainly made me realise how important it is for my Clients that I, and my team, have a wealth of experience of Litigants in Person and can successfully charter the minefield without incurring large additional costs for them.