Representing yourself in court

There has been a significant rise in the numbers of litigants-in-person as a result of government reforms to legal aid. These reforms drastically cut taxpayer assistance in areas of civil law, such as family, employment, negligence, personal injury and housing. To reduce costs of a legal dispute, many people are choosing to represent themselves as a litigant in person instead of paying for a lawyer.

Written by Lesley Lawrence LLB (Hons), LLM, Barrister, author of Win Your Own Case - Be Your Own Lawyer and Get the Results You Want

What is a litigant-in-person?

A litigant in person is an individual, company or organisation that represents themselves in legal proceedings.

Many litigants in person can struggle to competently represent themselves. The UK courts and legal system are complex and have rules, processes, customs and terminology which can be difficult for non-lawyers to understand. However, in some situations there is little alternative but to represent yourself.

Do you have a case?

Despite the fact that you may have suffered loss or damage, there may not be a legal basis for your issue. Pursuing legal action can be stressful, time-consuming, expensive, unpredictable and should be avoided if possible. You should consider all your options and circumstances before deciding to bring your claim to court.

At the start, set out what your problem is and what you want to achieve.

Look at such things as:

  • Who are the relevant people involved and what is their relationship to you?

  • What has /has not happened that has caused the dispute?

  • What are the main events that occurred?

  • When and where did this take place?

  • Have you suffered damage, been injured or lost income as a result?

  • Did anybody else witness what took place? If so, do you have their contact details?

  • Do you have evidence that supports your version of events? Are there any weaknesses in your claim?

Think about your issue and order the facts of your case by listing events in the order of occurrence. Don’t embellish your claim or leave facts out. This will help you focus on relevant issues.

What outcome do you want to achieve?

Once you have done a proper appraisal of the facts you can decide what your aims are in pursuing your complaint. Apply your own common sense and your circumstances to reach a conclusion of what an ideal outcome would be.

  • Do you want a refund or financial compensation? Would an apology suffice?

  • Do you have and/or want to maintain an ongoing relationship with the other person or organisation involved?

  • What are your feelings and emotions about what has happened?

  • How far are you willing to take things? Are you willing to risk the potential costs of a court case in time, money and inconvenience?

  • What financial resources do you have to pursue a claim?

  • Are your family or personal relationships being affected?

  • Has your health been affected?

  • Is there a history of a dispute between you and the other party involved?

  • Will the outcome affect your personal or professional reputation or standing in the business community?

You may be able to get some free legal advice to help you decide whether or not a dispute is worth pursuing.

Alternatives to going to court

Deciding on your ideal outcome will help you to determine the next steps. You could make an informal or formal complaint which will give you an opportunity to set out your grievance and your opponent a chance to put things right. If your dispute involves a public body (or some certain private sector services) and your complaint hasn’t led to the desired outcome, then a way to get your issue resolved is by the use of an ombudsman scheme. It’s free and can result in an apology, compensation and a recommendation that future practices and procedures are improved.

Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) can be a great cost-effective alternative to court action. Mediation, which is the most commonly used form of ADR, involves an independent third party who will help to find a solution that is fair to both sides. Unless your case is considered unsuitable for mediation the courts expect both sides to fully take part and try to reach a satisfactory conclusion by using the impartial and neutral assistance of a mediator. There are many organisations that can offer mediation sessions and advice.

If you’re unable to afford a lawyer for either all or part of your case and your claim is not especially complicated, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to represent yourself competently. Direct your thoughts to the relevant issues, take a methodical approach, invest some time in researching the appropriate rules and evaluate the resources and alternative avenues available to you. That way you’ll significantly increase your chances of being a winner.

Funding legal claims

Before embarking on a journey of self-representation it is crucial that prospective litigants-in-person investigate ways to get some free legal help, and if possible to allocate a budget to fund at least some professional support.

Check your legal aid eligibility

Although sweeping amendments made to state funding mean that the scope of eligibility is much narrower than it once was, people shouldn’t assume that they don’t qualify for civil legal aid without checking.

There are three tests which must all be met in order to qualify:

  • The case type must come within one of the qualifying categories. These include certain family cases with a provable history of domestic violence or where children are at risk of abduction, housing matters that involve unlawful eviction and possession and cases where babies have sustained neurological injuries whilst in the womb or shortly after birth. Legal aid does remain available for issues of mental health, immigration and a number of other categories of case such as special educational needs and breaches of human rights.

  • Income and capital assets must not exceed the prescribed threshold.

  • Legal opinion must rate the case as having at least a moderate chance of success.

The government has set up a useful online calculator and guidance tool for people to calculate whether their particular legal problem and financial circumstances qualify for legal aid.

Getting free legal advice and services

If you do not qualify for legal aid and are unable to pay for legal costs there are a number of routes to get some free professional help:

  • Citizens Advice Bureau is perhaps the largest and best known provider of free, independent and confidential advice on a number of issues such as housing, employment, immigration, debt and consumer matters. Interviews are arranged with an assessor who will work out the best way in which the service can assist you.

  • Law Centres offer free legal advice, casework and representation to individuals and groups in their local communities on subjects such as welfare rights, disabilities, employment, housing and community care.

  • LawWorks is the operating name of the Solicitors Pro Bono Group and has a network of clinics across the UK offering free legal help and mediation services

  • Bar Pro Bono Unit provides free written and verbal legal advice, drafting of documents and representation at hearings. Applications on behalf of individuals must be submitted by a Law Centre, CAB or solicitor and if successful applicants will still have to prepare their own case paperwork and write their own letters.

  • The Free Representation Unit provides legal support for people living in London, the Southeast and Nottingham areas who require advice and/or representation at employment, state benefits appeals or criminal injuries compensation tribunal hearings. The FRU website lists over 200 referral agencies that can refer cases for help.

  • Trade unions commonly offer both members and their families’ free legal services for a range of matters such as employment, workplace and personal injury disputes, wills and conveyancing. If you or your partner have ever been a member of a trade union it’s well worth checking with the union’s handbook or website to see if you’re entitled to free legal services.

  • Many home insurance policies provide legal expenses cover for a number of disputes, including contracts for goods and services, property and neighbour disputes, employment, personal injury and medical negligence. If you have a policy that includes cover, check its terms to see if there is a maximum limit for costs and the time limit required from the date of the incident to the insurer being informed.

Using a ‘no win, no fee’ solicitor

Instructing a solicitor on a ‘no win, no-fee’ arrangement can offer an affordable and straightforward route to legal representation. Under these arrangements, which are most commonly used in clinical negligence and personal injury disputes, the solicitor receives a higher fee than usual, if the case is successful but no fee if the case is lost.

If you are considering a ‘no win, no fee’ arrangement you must remember that such agreements are legally binding and should be set out in writing. The term ‘no win, no fee’ can be misleading and may wrongly suggest that you have nothing to at all to pay. Make sure that your solicitor fully explains your liability for disbursements, any insurance and your opponent’s costs if your case is unsuccessful. Also check to see if representation at hearings is included and not just initial advice and preparatory work.

Using barristers and solicitors for customised services

In the current market most lawyers recognise the demand for partial services for litigants who do not have the financial resources to pay for full legal representation. Investing a little money in some professional help along the way can be a very cost effective way for litigants-in-person to bolster confidence, gain some support and avoid expensive mistakes.

You could instruct a solicitor or direct access barrister to:

  • Assess the merits of your claim and the most favourable way forward

  • Provide an opinion on the evidence you’re proposing to adduce in support of your case

  • Oversee your case preparation, trial bundle and compliance with your duty of disclosure

  • Draft legal documents such as particulars of claim, defence or witness statements

  • Accompany you to mediation sessions or represent you at a hearing

  • Advise you of suitable questions to ask witnesses and how to conduct yourself at a hearing

Costs awarded to litigants-in-person

If you successfully win a case that involves a dispute valued over £10,000 (allocated as fast or multi-track), the usual rule is that your opponent will have to pay your costs in addition to their own. This should include any reasonable costs for professional advice on the merits, presentation and preparation of your case. As a litigant-in-person you are also entitled to claim for the work you have done in preparing your own case. providing it is the kind that a lawyer would have been able to charge for if you had been represented. The amount you can claim will depend on whether you can provide the court with evidence of your proven financial loss. This includes things like loss of business for the self-employed or unpaid leave taken from work. If this is the case you will get two-thirds of the amount that would have been charged by a lawyer. If you are unable to prove financial loss the court will grant you an hourly rate (currently £18) for the time that you’ve reasonably spent in preparing your case.

For smaller value cases brought in the small claims court awards are only usually granted for fixed costs, meaning those incurred in court fees or expert and witness expenses.

Preparing for court

Solving civil disputes without resorting to litigation should be the main objective of both parties to any legal disagreement. This is sound common sense and a requirement of the civil procedure system. If all reasonable attempts at negotiating a solution have failed, there may be no alternative but to pursue a court case. Before commencing formal proceedings in any civil claim, there are particular rules of procedure that must first be followed.

Pre-action protocols

The Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) which governs the pre-litigation process are known as pre-action protocols. The protocols are designed to ensure that cases are dealt with fairly, timely and in a cost effective way. They require both sides to cooperate, openly communicate, and exchange information and any correspondence within set timescales. Both sides are expected to have fully explored using Alternate Dispute Resolution (such as mediation) before bringing a case to court.

There are specific protocols that apply to certain categories of case, e.g personal injury, professional negligence, housing and construction matters. In case types where a specific protocol does not apply a Pre-Action Conduct Practice Direction sets out the requirements that must be adhered to.

See the Civil Procedure Rules on case specific pre-action protocols and Pre-Action Conduct Practice Direction for more information.  

Issuing a claim

The proceedings begin when the person wishing to bring a claim (known as the claimant) issues a claim form setting out a summary of the facts against the opponent (known as the defendant). The specific features of the case, must be either set out in the form itself or drafted in a separate document and served on the defendant within a designated timeline.

For further details on how to commence proceedings see Civil Procedure Rules – Part 7.

Filing a defence

The defendant has to respond to the claim within a directed timeframe and explain whether the particulars are accepted or will be either partially or fully defended. For further details on filing a defence see Civil Procedure Rules – Part 15.

Drafting court documents

All court documents must follow a particular format in respect of the proper layout of headings, title of the proceedings, paragraphs, court, and case numbers, how dates should be written etc and are provided by the Civil Procedure Rules as referred to below.

Particulars of claim

The part of the claim form which sets out the story from the claimant’s perspective, is known as the particulars of claim. It should set out who the parties are, what happened and the legal basis for the claim (such as breach of contract or negligence), the loss or damage that resulted and what is being sought. If a particular sum is being claimed it must be pleaded or in other cases it is sufficient to state that damages are to be assessed.


A defence should separately answer each of the allegations raised by the claimant in the particulars of claim from the defendant’s point of view. Each allegation must specifically be admitted, not admitted, denied and/or include an alternative version of the facts alleged. The court will assume that any allegations that are not dealt with in the defence are admitted. If defending the claim a defendant is also entitled to counter the allegations made by issuing a counterclaim of his or her own.

For further details on the requirements for a claim form, particulars of claim, defence and counterclaim see Civil Procedure Rules – Part 16.

Witness statements

A witness statement is a written factual account of the evidence of a person who is being called to testify about something he or she has knowledge of, or saw or heard. The contents of a witness statement must be relevant to the facts in issue that a party is seeking to prove or disprove.

The statement should be in the witness’s own words as much as possible and written in the first person. The witness should state his or her connection to the case or relationship with the claimant or the defendant and provide a well-organised summary of all relevant events in a clear, logical and chronological order. Details of background events should only be included if really necessary to make matters easier to understand or evaluate. Any references made by a witness to other documents or photographs should be identified by an exhibit number and either have a copy attached which has been signed by the witness or included in a list of documents. Use the initials of your witness to identify the exhibit.

For further guidance on witness statements see CPR Practice Direction 32 and the Civil Procedure Rules – directions on witness statements.

Managing your case papers

As a litigant-in-person, you will be handling all your own court documents, paperwork and correspondence as the case progresses. The more prepared and organised you are, the more confident you will be in understanding the facts of your case, presenting it in an efficient way and following the procedures required of you. So stay ahead of the game by maintaining meticulous records:

Prepare a chronology

Write up a synopsis of the relevant facts of your case and set them out in chronological order. You can use a list or table format and make a reference to any relevant documents that relate to the events listed. If your case proceeds to trial, a chronology will provide the judge with a helpful summary of the claim and give an overview of the key facts and background circumstances of the dispute.

Maintain a contacts sheet

For ease of reference keep information sheets listing the full contact details of everyone connected to your case.

Keep copies of everything you have

Make a duplicate file containing copies of all your original documents. Arrange everything in chronological order and make copies of everything you send to the court or your opponent in addition to the documents you have received.

Maintain court or attendance notes

When attending any court hearing all lawyers take careful notes of the date, what was discussed or agreed, any directions given by the judge and dates by which things need to be done. Litigants-in-person should follow suit and keep careful records of all court appearances and significant meetings.

Keep a diary to record all important dates and deadlines

Include dates of court attendance, any mediation appointments, and details of deadlines for serving/filing documents and directions of the court. Make a note of all relevant conversations and record what was discussed, including any offers to settle you have either made or received. Having such a diary at hearings or mediation sessions will allow you to easily confirm the sequence of events, dates or conversations.

Keep a separate indexed file of evidence

Create an index system to list to order any evidence you intend to rely on as part of your case, such as invoices, receipts, photographs, contracts, letters and copies of emails, etc. This will help you become familiar with your evidence and help you locate it easily.