Thursday, 24 October 2013

A new guide for Litigants in Person by the Judiciary

 A Handbook for Litigants in Person

While a welcome move and with useful content, the language in the guide is inaccessible, there is too much use of abbreviation and acronyms, which represents a further barrier for the average man or woman in the street.

This guide appears for individuals in civil proceedings other than family law. They do actually state this, but buried within the chapter on County Courts rather than at the start or within the foreword.

"3.5 This Handbook does not cover family or insolvency disputes. It deals only with civil disputes, such as claims relating to contracts, the ownership and possession of land, and torts, including personal injury claims arising out of road traffic accidents, and accidents at work."
Inaccessible English - An Example
Statements of Case under CPR are what used to be called ‘pleadings’. The old name has stuck. It is widely known and understood [by whom... who is your audience?].

Your audience is Joe Public. Would the word 'adduce' form part of their every day language?

How much information you give, compared to how much to leave out (so your audience isn't overwhelmed) is a near impossible divide for the author to bridge, and we live in a 'bite sized' world where people's attention span is lower, vocabulary mixed, and we have a system of law where to be properly informed requires a knowledge of legislation, case law, family procedure rules, practice directions and experience of how such things are applied on the ground. Language must be simple, since for many applicants to court, English isn't their first language (25% of children born in the UK have foreign born mothers).

It is permitted for a solicitor or litigation friend to sign the statement of truth [CPR 22.1(6)] but this should only be done where there is a good reason for the litigant to be unable to sign it. 

How many litigants-in-person will read the above and believe a McKenzie Friend can sign their statement for them? Many! However, to do so would be a breach of the Legal Service Act and carrying out the 'conduct of litigation' which a McKenzie Friend cannot do!!! WE'RE CONFUSED! To explain, a McKenzie Friend is different from a litigation friend (who may act on someone's behalf, whereas a McKenzie Friend MAY NOT!). The authors know it, the legal professional knows it, but most people (and especially the intended audience) will not. Too much information, without careful explanation, can be a dangerous thing (carrying out the conduct of litigation, unless permitted to do so, can be a committal offense).

Most guides give far too little information to be of any use whatsoever, and that isn't an accusation which could be levelled at this guide, which the authors' admit cannot cover every eventuality. Still, its usefulness will be limited to those who already have a reasonable knowledge of law, and who have the education and skills to access its contents and seek information outside.

As someone who's been working on information provision in this area for some years, I have much sympathy for the authors, as our law is complex, but for many litigants, I fear the guide will be as bewildering as the system it seeks to explain.