How to represent yourself in court

Do you need to defend yourself in a court case? Or maybe you are taking legal action against a person or business? Find out how to represent yourself in court.

Litigation should always be a last resort. It’s not an easy route, nor is it a cheap one. And you must be able to show you’ve tried everything else first.

The first most important rule where there is a dispute, is to contact the other party to try to resolve it face to face or at least negotiate a compromise that is acceptable to both parties. But if court is forced upon you, it is important to know your options: 

You have the choice to be represented by a professional (a solicitor or barrister) or to represent yourself. So, this is the initial decision that needs to be made. Few people outside the legal profession have enough knowledge of our legal system to go to court unaided.

If there is a criminal law element to the nature of the case, it is not recommended that you fight your corner on your own. But in a civil dispute – such as an alleged debt, a faulty item bought at a shop or online, or an employment matter – representing yourself is a viable option.

Generally, if you can afford it, opt to instruct either solicitor or barrister or both to help you. But if you cannot afford to do this (or you do not wish to) then you can represent yourself as a litigant in person (LIP). 

Get help with the process of going to court

The first big tip to take on board is that the whole of the civil court process (County Court or High Court) is dictated by The Civil Procedure Rules 1998 (CPR). You can find out how to do everything in the courts by using the CPR as your bible. There is also quite a bit of help on the website.

So, if you wish to bring an action against someone, or if another individual is taking action against you, there is help at hand if you wish to be a litigant in person (LIP).

What happens when you take someone to court?

If a person of business owes you money, you can apply to a county court to claim money. This used to be known as taking someone to a ‘small claims court’ but today it’s known as making a court claim.

If your claim is for less than £10,000 you can make a claim online. If you don’t know the amount you are owed, or it’s more than £10,000 you can apply by post.

It’s always better to try to avoid legal action, so give the other party plenty of opportunity to pay what they owe, and advance warning of your intention to proceed with court action if they do not. It important, therefore that you follow pre-action protocol.

How much does it cost to take someone to court?

If possible, opt for mediation service before going to court, as it is usually quicker and cheaper. In mediation an impartial person helps both sides work out an agreement.

However, if mediation isn’t an option or has not worked, you may decide to proceed with court action. The court fees are based on how much you are owed:

What happens after you make your claim?

Once you submit your claim, it will be sent to the defendant. They must then respond, either by paying you what they owe you or defending the claim. If they pay you, you must tell them you have received their payment and then update your claim.

If the defendant does not respond to the claim, you can request a judgement. If they decide to defend the claim they must explain why they disagree in a defence document. The court will send you a copy of their defence and a directions questionnaire to help decide when and where the hearing should take place.

If you and the defendant both agree that the court can decide the claim without a hearing, the judge will make a decision based on your claim and the defence, and no court hearing will be required.

What happens when someone takes you to court?

If you are the victim of a potential claim against you, then the other party must write to you with information about why they believe you owe money (or whatever the potential claim is) in order to give you an opportunity to respond and (hopefully) settle the dispute before it goes any further. This is the pre-action protocol and is an absolute must. 

The letter of claim (as it is known) must express all the facts and evidence of the alleged claim leading up to this point and give the other party a (set and reasonable) period of time to respond and resolve the issues.

Of course, this assumes that the party wishing to take you to court is a reasonable individual. You could get a situation where they are not quite so straight forward and decide that they will take you to court no matter what, without any regard to any pre discussion and completely disregarding what you have to say.

Unfortunately, you are then faced with the prospect of court action, which is not what you wanted, but it is outside of your control.

What happens when you are issued with a court claim?

If someone takes you to court, a claim will issued, and according to the CPR you have a set number of days to either acknowledge receipt of the claim and file a defence or admit the claim (or part of it).

The worst thing you can do is to ignore it and do nothing. The courts look upon this as an admission and the claimant can get a county court judgment (CCJ) against you by default. 

Unfortunately, this happens often with private parking tickets as people mistakenly believe private parking companies cannot enforce charges. So you should always act on a claim if you receive one.

How to defend yourself in court

Once you file a defence (which again has to comply with the format laid down by the CPR), the case is now on course for a hearing. The format of the hearing and where it will take place will depend on the nature of the case.

There could be various stages to go through such as ‘disclosure of documentation’ where both parties have to send to each other the evidence that they will refer to in order to prove their case. Depending on the nature of the claim there could be a stage where mediation is suggested to try to settle the case prior to the main hearing.

However, it could be a straightforward small claim (such as a debt up to a maximum of £10,000) in which case the hearing will be less formal and be heard in Chambers presided over by a District Judge.

How to address a judge in court

If you are choosing to appear as a LIP, then it is important to understand what to say in court and how to say, so do your research.

Different judges are addressed in different ways, so always find out how you should be addressing the court. For example, in court a senior judge is addressed as My Lord or My Lady, whereas a Circuit Judge is addressed as Your Honour.

District Judges are addressed as Judge, and Magistrates as Sir or Madam. Here is a useful site to help you get this right.

Can you take someone with you to court?

You may also be allowed to have someone else in court with you to take notes or offer advice – but this person cannot speak for you. This person could be a McKenzie Friend or a paralegal who has been helping you with your case. 

When presenting your case, the best advice is to be as clear as you can and to stick to the facts without the temptation to embellish what you say with emotion. This is far more difficult than you think and the judge, or the other party, may intervene if the belief is that you are going off on a tangent.

Judges will always intervene to assist you as a LIP either to give you advice on court process or to guide you about what information you need to impart. This can slow the process considerably, and this is not looked on favourably as it is your responsibility to be prepared and understand what is required of you. 

Make sure you are properly prepared to represent yourself in court

Always do your research on the civil court process – make sure you know about the stages of a court action (including the personnel involved: usher, judge’s clerk etc) and know how to address the judge. 

It is a huge undertaking to represent yourself and a daunting prospect if you have no assistance. A recommended option is to ask for help from a paralegal who can guide you through the court process – they will almost always not be able to represent you during the actual hearing, but they can be there to offer moral support. 

Amanda Hamilton is the Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body and the only paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England).

Through NALP centres around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional.