14.12.06

Day 53 (week 11): Litigant-in-person

Today the Boss had an interlocutory hearing, a small ten minute affair where the court makes directions as to how the case should proceed. Well, that’s how long it should have taken were it not for the litigant-in-person on the other side. This is the polite name for someone who is not legally represented. Occasionally this can be for the very best of reasons such as lack of funds. More usually it’s because the litigant has either been unable to get a firm to represent him or because he has parted company with them. This might be due, for example, to him sacking them or because solicitors get sick of the trouble he is causing or perhaps stumble on a difficulty which until then he has successfully hidden from them. Whatever it is, by and large litigants-in-person are trouble. Or so the Boss explained to me in some detail before going off on this case.

For once, he was proved right. From our arrival at Bromley County Court, it was clear that the litigant was bristling for a fight. The Boss had had some experience of such litigants and told me that it was wise to say as little as possible to them beforehand. Otherwise, he said, you risk finding whatever you said being twisted into a professional conduct complaint. He said this with such conviction that it made me wonder whether he was speaking from personal experience. The litigant also smelt slightly of alcohol which for eleven in the morning did not bode well. So, after brief unpleasantries between the litigant and the Boss, we all marched into court.

The dispute was a simple one. The litigant accused his local council of ‘harrassment’. The council, represented by the Boss, denied the allegations. In addition, they said that in any event even if what he said were true, it did not amount to a cause of action which would result in damages. The file of papers was massive and packed full of handwritten letters from the litigant himself. Lots of capital letters, underlinings and exclamation marks as if he felt that the world would not listen to him unless he made more of an effort. His written ramblings were at times incoherent and this was reflected in the submissions he gave to the judge. It was clear from the start that the judge had the measure of this case and was simply going through the motions for the benefit of the tape. He was well aware that this sort of litigant was exactly the sort of person to take what he said straight to the Court of Appeal. He therefore listened carefully to the litigant’s submissions for one and a half hours. He then looked at the Boss and having told him that he did not need to hear from him, refused the litigant’s request to put off the case for six months whilst he gathered more evidence. Instead, the trial was listed for February.

The sad thing is that the whole thing appears to have started with a genuine grievance. The council sent him a letter claiming that he had not paid his council tax. This was sent to him in error and was meant for someone with the same surname further down his street. It took several letters from the litigant before the council accepted this. In the meantime, he had got it into his head that he should be compensated for the stress that he had suffered in dealing with this. The problem at this stage of the case was that the council had now racked up over £20,000 in legal fees defending it and so the litigant had dug himself into a hole. Even if he gave up now, he would never be able to pay such a bill and therefore he almost had nothing more to lose as it were by fighting on.

And so it was that another story of human misfortune triggered a legal case which would eventually find its way onto the Boss’ desk and contribute to the lifestyle to which he had by now become accustomed.

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