5 reasons not to represent yourself in court

by James Christie on April 26, 2012

Why the saying “a lawyer who acts for him or herself has a fool for a client” has much truth in it

It’s a classic Hollywood scenario. An innocent man can’t afford legal representation so, burning the midnight oil in a cell lined with legal books from the prison library, mounts his own defence.

And wins.

However, there are a lot of things movies with such plots don’t tell you about representing yourself in court. Just because you’ve seen a few episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey doesn’t make you a legal expert any more than watching Holby City qualifies you for carrying out a heart by-pass operation.

Here’s five good reasons why it’s best to hire a lawyer rather than bat for yourself in a court of law.

1.   Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Heather Mills

What have Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Heather Mills all got in common? Answer: they have all, at one time or another, been a litigant-in-person; someone who has not had legal representation in court and has chosen to address the court in person rather than merely reply to questions.

Heather Mills opted to act on her own behalf in divorce court negotiations with Sir Paul McCartney in 2006. True, Ms Mills earned £14m for herself and was awarded £2.5m to buy a house in London. However, this figure was just a drop in the ocean compared to the £125m she had been seeking.

2.  Tommy Sheridan v News of the World

In 2006, Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan dramatically sacked his legal team during a defamation case he had brought against now-defunct newspaper the News of the World. He won.

Exactly the same thing happened when he was tried for perjury in 2010. His decision to defend himself was seen as a brave action which was typical of his maverick character. He lost.

3. Do the Maths

Figures about the success rate of people who represent themselves in court are hard to come by – I couldn’t find any on the Ministry of Justice website.

However, you can get an idea of the difficulties faced by litigants-in-person when you consider the 2009/10 figures relating to incapacity benefit cases. Over half (60 per cent) of people without legal representation lost their case, compared with just 33 per cent who had lawyers

4.  There’s always someone out there who’s smarter than you

Many barristers are Oxford law graduates who possess at least a 2:1 degree and have a one-year pupillage at chambers on their CV. It’s the process which Tony Blair went through under the guidance of a man named Derry Irvine (he returned the favour by making Irvine Lord Chancellor, but that’s another story).

This education does not mean that barristers and solicitors are more intelligent than the man on the street but it does mean that they speak the language needed to survive in the courtroom. They are also adept at advocacy – arguing a case on behalf of another person.

They won’t freeze in court – you might.

5.  Ignorance is not a valid defence

It’s a big gamble to think that a judge will be charmed by an amateur barrister’s endearing lack of knowledge. Judges have to make decisions based on law; they won’t – they can’t – go beyond the law.

And the opposition will always have one killer question up their sleeves for do-it-yourself barristers who insist that the English law – with its complex rules and provisos – is on their side.

That question is: “Do you have a law qualification?”

It’s a question which might be heard far more often in English courts if legal aid continues to become increasing problematic for people to access.

James Christie writes for business directory Thomson Local.

James Christie

James Christie

James Christie

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