A survival guide to going to court when the other side has a lawyer and you don't

This guide is for you if you are going to court, or are thinking about it and you cannot afford to pay a lawyer to advise and represent you. It will help you understand how going to court works and what to expect when the other people or organisations involved in the case do have a lawyer. It will also explain the skills you need to get you through the process and give you practical tips on going to court and how to make your case as well as you can.
Getting started

This is just one of our useful guides for people going to court without a lawyer. You might find some of our other resources helpful too. Start by choosing one of the links below:

Going to the family court

Going to a civil court

Going to a tribunal

We also have a Help Directory that explains where you may be able to get advice.

If you decide to get advice, take a look at How to prepare for seeing solicitor or adviser.

Having to go to court can be stressful and daunting. More often than not, you will only be there because of someone or something really important to you, like your children, your home, or your job. The stakes then are high, which can make everything seem scary and overwhelming.

Who the other people involved in your case are will depend on what type of case it is. In this guide, when we talk about the other people in your case we call them ‘the other side’. 

If you have to face the court process (which is often long and drawn out) without a lawyer to advise and support you, then it can be even more daunting. Knowing a bit about the legal language and the process, and about the other people involved, will help you to feel a bit more ready for court, and should help to make things a bit less stressful on the day.

This guide tells you about:

  • Lawyers and what their role is, including what they can and cannot do.
  • When and how to report a concern about a lawyer to their regulator.
  • The skills you need to represent yourself so that you can keep calm, focus on the practicalities and come out the other end.

We try to explain any technical or unusual terms as we go along, but they are also explained in a section at the end of the guide called What does it mean? 

The law in this guide relates to England and Wales only. The law in Scotland and Northern Ireland is different. But, the practical tips about preparing for and going to court are likely to be useful wherever you are in the UK.

 

 

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April 2020

Things to understand

 Here are some important things to understand: 

  • If you are involved in a legal case that ends up in court and you don’t have a lawyer, the law calls you a Litigant in Person, or a LiP for short.
  • This guide talks about going to court but it will also be useful if you are going to a tribunal as the other side there may well be represented by a lawyer and you will need the same skills to run your tribunal case as you would for a court case.
  • If you are not involved in a court case yet but are thinking about applying to court, is a good idea to think about whether there is another way to sort out your issue, such as mediation. Going to court is not a quick or easy fix. And even if you don’t pay a lawyer at any point there could still be some or even a lot of costs that you have to pay. We explain more about this in the section called Costs.
  • To find out more about how to avoid court take a look at How to sort out your problem before or instead of going to court.  If your case is about a family law problem you may find A survival guide to using family mediation after a break up useful.
  • If you have decided you definitely cannot afford to pay a lawyer it might be that you could get legal aid. Legal aid is money from the government to help you pay a lawyer to give you advice or represent you. Not all types of case are covered by legal aid, and it is usually only available to people on a low income, but it is worth checking if you can get it. If you have a family law problem have a look at How to get legal aid for a family law problem. If you have another legal problem that is not to do with family law or criminal law take a look at Getting help to pay for legal advice about a civil (non -criminal) problem.
  • There are different words used in court to describe the people involved in a case. The people who the dispute is between are called the ‘parties’. If you apply to court you will be called the ‘applicant’ or the ‘claimant’ depending on the type of case. If someone else has applied and sent you the application you will be called the ‘respondent’ or the ‘defendant’, again, depending on the type of case.
  • This guide is mainly for people going to the civil court, family court or a tribunal in England and Wales. But, if you are a defendant in a criminal case and cannot get legal aid or afford to pay a lawyer then the sections about lawyers will still be useful and many of the practical tips about running your own case will also help you.
Lawyers and other people you are likely to meet during your case

The law and the court system in England and Wales can be complex and confusing (even for the lawyers sometimes!)

Understanding who each professional you will come across is, and what their role is will help you focus on more important things. A lawyer’s job is to represent the best interests of their client and to act on their instructions. When dealing with them, it can help to understand that they are just doing their job, and that they have nothing against you personally.

Often, when you go to court the lawyers you come across will be barristers. But this is not always the case, so in the next section we talk about the different lawyers you might meet.

Lawyers

The word ‘lawyer’ is often used to describe someone who is legally qualified and trained to advise and represent someone who has a legal problem. But in fact, people can call themselves a lawyer without being legally qualified or trained. Some lawyers are tightly regulated while other lawyers are not regulated at all. 

There are three main types of regulated lawyers you are likely to come across at court. These are solicitors, legal executives and barristers. There are other regulated lawyers too - you can read about the other types of regulated lawyers on the Legal Choices website. 

Solicitors

Solicitors are qualified to work in any area of law but now, more often than not, they choose one area to focus on. Solicitors represent a person by running their case for them, and if needed, will prepare the case for going to court. Some solicitors never do court work. For example if you buy a house, a solicitor who helps you with this advises you on property law and does all the paperwork for the purchase, but there is no court involved. Other solicitors, working in different areas of law, do go to court and represent their client at court hearings. Solicitors who do go to court tend to do the shorter hearings at the start of a case and then use a barrister to do any longer hearings.

Legal executives

Legal executives are qualified in just one particular area of law and, day to day, work very much like a solicitor. They generally cannot do court hearings unless they do extra training so you are less likely to come across them at court.

Barristers

Barristers work alongside solicitors to give specialist advice on a case to try and settle the dispute before it goes to court.  Barristers also get involved in a case when the parties can’t reach an agreement and the dispute ends up in court.

Barristers represent their client by presenting their case and arguing their case as strongly as possible. They also advise their client on how to come to an agreement at court so that time, money and energy can be saved.

In some cases a barrister will be instructed to represent their client at every hearing. In other cases they will just be instructed for the longer hearings when people give evidence and the court makes its final decision about the dispute.

Usually barristers need to be instructed through a solicitor to represent their client at court. But some barristers take cases direct from members of the public without a solicitor being involved. This is called ‘direct access’. You can find out more about direct access at the Direct Access Portal on the Bar Council website.

Other people you will see at court

Not everyone you see at court will be a lawyer. The court ushers will sign everybody in and make sure everyone is ready for a hearing. They will call the case name and may take you into the court room itself. Depending on the court there may be a court clerk in the court room with you. Ushers and court clerks often wear black knee length gowns.

Depending on the type of case you are involved in, when you go into the court room there will be either a judge or three magistrates to hear the case. Magistrates can hear and decide cases just like judges but they are not legally trained. Instead, they are volunteers from the local community. As they are not legally trained, they have a legal adviser in court with them to assist them with the law.

Because of government cuts to legal aid there are more and more people without a lawyer trying to find their way through the court system. You might find that the person on the other side doesn’t have a lawyer to represent them either. They might have the support of a McKenzie friend though. We explain more about McKenzie friends in the next section. 

Support at court - McKenzie friends

A McKenzie friend is the name given to a person who can come to court to give you support and practical help. They might be a friend or family member. Some McKenzie friends charge you to come and help you at court and others are willing to help you free of charge.

If you want someone to go into the actual court hearing with you, you don't need to ask unless its a private hearing (often hearings about children and housing issues are private). 

If your hearing is a private one and the judge agrees to you having a McKenzie friend with you, you will be able to take someone into the hearing but normally they will not be able to speak on your behalf. They will almost certainly need to tell the Judge who they are, and a little about themselves. A McKenzie friend can act as your eyes and ears for you during the hearing, for example, by taking notes and reminding you of things you want to say to the judge. They should generally not be someone involved in the case itself (for example if they are likely to be a witness in the case then it probably won’t be a good idea to involve them as a McKenzie friend).

If you would like to read more about what McKenzie friends can and cannot do you can look at the Practice Guidance: McKenzie Friends (Civil and Family Courts).

Be aware that the judge can ask your McKenzie friend to leave the court if they behave in a way that interferes with the court doing its job, for example, if they make loud comments.

There are a growing number of McKenzie friends who now charge for their services. Some might even call themselves ‘professional’ McKenzie friends. But it is important to understand that anyone can call themselves a McKenzie friend. If you are thinking about spending money on the services of McKenzie friend remember that they:  

  • Are not usually legally qualified and may not have experience or understanding of the law or procedure.
  • Cannot represent you at court by speaking on your behalf.
  • Cannot represent you out of court – for example by running your case like a solicitor would (but they can help you before you go to court).
  • Are not usually regulated by a professional body (If the one you decide to use isn’t regulated and they do something wrong you may not be able to complain or get help to make the situation better).
  • Are usually not insured. 

You should think about whether you might get better value for money, a better service and better protection by instructing a regulated lawyer (a barrister, solicitor or legal executive) to advise or represent you. You could perhaps instruct a regulated lawyer at key points, even if you cannot afford to have them involved throughout the case. All regulated lawyers are legally qualified and must keep their legal skills and knowledge up to date. Also they are insured, if things go wrong. 


The media and your case

You may come across media representatives when you are at court. What the media can and cannot report depends on the type of case it is. If your hearing is held in open court the media can attend and report on the case. If your hearing is in the family court there are different rules. Generally, the media can attend family court hearings but there are some particular hearings that they cannot attend. The court can restrict what is later published about a case. There are lots of different rules on this and to help you understand which rules apply in your case you can read the useful guide written by the court service called Can the media attend my court case - a guide for family court users. 

Duties of regulated practising lawyers

All qualified practising lawyers are controlled by independent regulators. A practising lawyer is a lawyer who is qualified and has an up to date certificate from their regulator to say they can practise. This means their training and knowledge is up to date.

The different regulators have the power to stop regulated practising lawyers from working if they have done something very seriously wrong. They must follow strict rules about, among many other things, how they behave or conduct themselves when working. These are known as professional conduct rules.

When we talk about lawyers from here on, we mean regulated practising lawyers unless we clearly say otherwise. 

Next we will talk about lawyers and in particular:

  • what they must do,
  • what they are not allowed to do,
  • when you might have good reason to report a concern about how a qualified lawyer on the other side has behaved.
What to expect when the other side has a regulated practising lawyer to represent them

There are lots of rules all regulated practising lawyers must follow. The most important rules are in their different codes of conduct.

A lawyer’s duties include the following:

  • They must assist the court in the interests of justice. This means they cannot mislead the court to help their client.
  • They must act in their client’s best interests (but their duty to the court comes first).
  • They must be honest and act with integrity at all times. This means they must not mislead the court to protect their client or help their client’s case.
  • They must stay independent. For example, they can’t take on a new client if there is a conflict between the new client and the current client's interests.
  • They must not behave in a way that will mean people will have less trust or confidence in their profession. For example if a barrister commited a crime this might damage people's trust in the profession generally. 
  • They must keep what their client tells them confidential unless the client gives permission for information to be shared.

These rules mean that a lawyer you meet at court will:

  • Advise their client, in private, on the strengths and weaknesses in their case.
  • Follow their client’s instructions (they must do this even if they don’t think what their client has decided to do is a good idea, as long as doing this doesn't conflict with the law or their duty to the court).
  • If it is in the best interests of their client, they will try and work out an agreement with you before going into see the judge or at least work out with you what is agreed and what is not agreed.
  • Argue their client’s case as strongly as possible in court, to try and persuade the judge to make the order their client wants.
  • Test your (or your witness’) evidence by asking questions to highlight weaknesses in your case - to help their client’s case.

A lawyer you meet at court may:

  • Come up to you before you go into the court room to introduce themselves and let you know what their client’s up to date position is. They may also try and negotiate an agreement with you to avoid a long hearing with the judge. Try not to feel intimidated if this happens. It can be helpful for you, as if it works it will move things forward and reduce the number of things to talk about in front of the judge. Even if you don’t want to do this or if you try but can’t reach an agreement, the lawyer will try and work out with you what is definitely agreed and what is definitely is not agreed. The judge will be pleased if you have had a discussion even if you have not agreed anything because it will save time in the hearing if you understand each other's position from the start. 
  • Say things you don’t agree with and this can be difficult to hear. This really isn’t personal. It is just their job to argue their client’s case as strongly as they can.
  • Explain their client’s case so that you know what the other side’s position is at that exact time.
  • Prepare the court order at the end of the hearing for the judge to read (this might be done at court or soon after). The judge will either make changes or approve the order as the lawyer as written it. The lawyer should usually send a copy of the order to you to check before sending it to the court unless it is a very straightforward order and you have agreed all the wording at court. They must accurately record what the judge has already ordered. If an order is sent to you to check it is just to make sure that they have done this properly. It is not a chance to try and reopen things the judge has already decided.

You cannot expect a lawyer on the other side to:

  • Help you with your case, for example by telling you what to do or say, or by providing case law that helps your case.
  • Say you have a good case or agree with you (privately, they may think you have the best case. But even if they do, they can’t say this out loud as this wouldn’t help their client’s case. Their duty is to act in their client’s best interests).
  • Avoid questions that are difficult, uncomfortable or even upsetting for you. The way lawyers ask questions in court may not always feel polite. But it is their job to ask questions that help their client’s case and they will often put you on the spot to do this. If a lawyer asks a question which is inappropriate the judge will stop them.
Concerns about regulated practising lawyers representing the other side

Our top three tips on raising a concern with a regulator about a lawyer on the other side

  • Make sure what you write is concise and to the point.
  • Make sure you give examples of what the lawyer did or said. For example, it will not be enough to just say the lawyer was rude or aggressive. You need to say how they behaved and why you found it rude or aggressive.
  • If you can get any supporting evidence about your concern this will help.

You might think that when a lawyer represents their client’s case to you or the court they are lying because you have a different view of what has happened in the case. Remember that the lawyer is not saying what they personally think has happened or what they think is true. They are only following their client’s instructions and it is their job to do this. They are not lying. They are just putting the other side’s position, which you don’t agree with. It is not the lawyer’s job to decide what is true and what isn’t. Their job is to represent their client’s position as best as they can, whether it is a good case or a weak case.

A lawyer’s discussions with their client are confidential and a lawyer can only tell the court what their client tells them to say. However, a lawyer must not mislead the court. For example, a lawyer cannot tell the court that his client has not done something if the client has actually told the lawyer that he has done that thing. If the client says he has not done the thing the lawyer can and should present that position to the court whether or not they believe their client.

Reporting a concern about a lawyer 

If you believe that a regulated practising lawyer on the other side has behaved in a way that is not permitted by their regulator you can report your concerns.

Solicitors

Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

If you have concerns about the behaviour of a solicitor you can contact the Solicitors Regulation Authority to report your concern

Legal Executives

Legal executives are regulated by CILEx RegulationIf you have concerns about the behaviour of a legal executive you can contact CILEx Regulation to make a complaint.

Barristers

Barristers are regulated by the Bar Standards Board

To report a concern about a barrister you need to go to the Bar Standard Board website to read about how to do it.  

Rules about reporting a concern to a regulator

Before you raise any concerns you might have about a lawyer on the other side it is important to understand that there are rules about what issues you can and cannot report.

You cannot report a concern to a regulator:

  • Just because you don’t agree with the outcome of your case,
  • to get a particular lawyer stopped from representing the other side,
  • to stop a lawyer on the other side from using evidence or arguments you disagree with or asking the court that you pay their client’s costs,
  • to get an apology or compensation from a particular lawyer for how they have behaved to you (although if it is your lawyer you can ask for help from the Legal Ombudsman about this). 

You can report a concern if you think that a lawyer on the other side has:

  • Been dishonest.
  • Treated you unfairly because of your age, disability, race, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation. These are known as ‘protected characteristics’. You can find out more about discrimination law on Equality and Human Rights Commission website.
  • Broken one of the other SRA Principles - if the lawyer is a solicitor. 
  • Broken one of the other CILEx Code of Conduct rules - if the lawyer is a legal executive. 
  • Broken one of the other  Code of Conduct rules for barristers - if the lawyer is a barrister. 
Skills you need to get you through your case

If you do end up at court without a lawyer and the other side has a lawyer, or even a team of lawyers, this is likely to feel really daunting. But, the worst thing to do is to panic or go on the defensive. That is not going to help you put your position in a clear and calm way to the judge. Instead, you need to prepare as much as you can. Read on for our top tips about how to manage the process without the help of a lawyer.

Running your own case

If you do not have a lawyer to manage your case, you need to do it yourself. This means dealing with paperwork from the other side and the court and in some cases other people such as a social worker or an expert.

If the other side has a lawyer then usually you will need to through that lawyer, rather than directly with them. Day to day while the case is ongoing, this will often be a solicitor or a legal executive. At court, the other side’s representative will often be a barrister or sometimes a solicitor. You might need to communicate with the barrister about the wording of a final order but other than that you will usually need to communicate with the solicitor.

You may find that the person on the other side will just pay a lawyer for bits of legal help now and then, when they can afford it. In this situation you will probably need to communicate with the actual person on the other side. If you are not sure, it is always best to check as leaving messages or sending emails to the wrong person can slow things down and create confusion. 

Get organised! 

  • Keep your papers neat and tidy so you don’t lose important paperwork. For example, you could have a file for court documents and another for letters, emails and telephone call notes.
  • Keep copies of all letters or emails you send, in your file.
  • Keep a record of any telephone calls you have – record the name of the person you spoke to, the date and time, and what was said by you and them.
  • Make sure you reply promptly to letters, emails, and requests from the other side and the court.
  • Give the court and the other side as much notice as possible about what you plan to do, for example, make a new application.
  •  If you send anything to the court, you always need to send a copy to the other side as well. Keep a copy for yourself too! Make sure you do this as soon as you can, rather than at the last minute.
  • Make sure you stick to all dates and deadlines. If you have a good reason as to why you can’t, make sure you tell the court and the other side this before the deadline and ask for an extension.
Preparing your case
  • Whatever the legal issue in your case, you need to try and look at your case from every angle. This can be very hard to do. But, this is what the judge will do. It will help you a lot if you can see the strengths and weaknesses of your case before you are put on the spot at court. If you can see the weaknesses in your case that might help you to see where to compromise when you are at court. The judge will expect you to have thought about how to compromise. If you can’t resolve things by agreement, then the judge will make a final decision that you will have to accept.
  • To look at your case from every angle you need time. Make sure you put time aside to get some legal advice before you go to court. If you can’t afford to see a solicitor for early legal advice there are other places you can go to that might be able to give you some initial legal advice for free. To start with, choose between Going to the family court, Going to a civil court, or Going to a tribunal and then click on the Legal Advice box at the bottom of the page.
  • Make notes about your case before the hearing so you are clear on what you want to say. It is best to do these as bullet points rather than like an essay as it is unlikely the judge will let you read out something really long. You need notes on what you think is most important - what you don’t agree on with the other side. You might find it useful to make a list of key dates and events in the order that they happened so that you can find important information quickly.
  • Check the order you should already have for details about the hearing. Every time there is a hearing the court should give everyone an idea about how long it will take. This is called a ‘time estimate’. It might say, 30 minutes for example. This does not mean your hearing will be finished in 30 minutes though. It may take longer and it may well not start on time.  
  • Be aware that if the time estimate is short, for example 30 minutes, it is very unlikely there will be time for you to tell the judge lots about your case. If the time estimate is much longer, for example one day or more, then it is highly likely you will be giving evidence to the court and the court will expect you to be ready to ask the other side questions.
Getting ready to go to a court hearing

The practicalities

  • Make sure you check where the hearing is each time you go - sometimes the venue can change from hearing to hearing. Before your first hearing the court will send you a letter or a court order setting out where the hearing is going to take place, what time it will start and how long before the start time you need to get there.
  • If you can, try and arrange to visit the court hearing venue beforehand. This might help you feel calmer on the actual day as you are much less likely to get lost. You will also have a better idea of what it all looks like. It probably won’t look like it does on TV. For example, many family and civil cases take place in the judge’s chambers. This is just another word for an office. Judges’ chambers are often small and you may end up sitting at a small table opposite the person on the other side of your case.
  • If it is too tricky to go to the court before the hearing there are videos you can look at online. If your case is in the family court you can look at The family court without a lawyer that has three short films about going to the family court that are free to watch.
  • Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to the hearing - time for the bus to be late or the traffic to be bad.
  • Arrive early - usually 30 minutes before the start time or even earlier if the order says so.
  • Take a friend or family member with you to court for support if you want to, but make sure it is someone who will help you keep calm and stay focussed, rather than get cross or upset on your behalf. They may be able to come into the court hearing, as a McKenzie friend. Take a look at the section called Support at court - McKenzie friends for more information on this. 
  • Be prepared to be at court for a long time. Lots of cases are arranged to start at the same time, for example 10am. There will not be enough judges to hear all those people at 10am. But you still need to be there on time because your case might be the first one! The reason why lots of people are asked to arrive at the same time is because some cases won’t end up going ahead and others will reach agreement and not need the time previously thought. If you can’t reach agreement your case may end up being heard by the judge last. This is to give you extra time to try and reach agreement and to let the people who are finished leave as soon as possible. You might hear people at court call the cases for the day the ‘court list’ or say that your case is ‘listed’ at 2pm. This just means it you need to be there in time for a 2pm start. 
  • You can end up being at court for a long time even if your time with the judge ends up being quite short. This means it is a good idea to tell your work you may be out all day. If you have children at nursery or school who need collecting, make a plan for someone else to pick up - just in case. It also means you need enough money for the car park, a snack or lunch and drinks.
  • Avoid taking your children to court at all costs! If you really have to, make sure you have another adult there too who can look after your children when you go into the court room.
  • Take three copies of any documents you want to show the court. This will mean there is a copy for the court, the other side and you.
  • Take any notes you have made about what you want to say.
  • Take pens and paper to make notes of what happens at the hearing, what they say about what will happen after the hearing, and what you need to do and when.
  • If there is a court bundle make sure you take it with you. A court bundle is a file, or several files, of paperwork all about a case that is used by everyone at court, including the judge. Usually the person who applies to court has to arrange the bundles. But, if that is you the court might order that the other side has to do it or even that the court staff have to do it. If there is no bundle make sure you take your file of paperwork and that it is tidy, so you can find the documents you need find quickly.
  • Don’t worry about what to wear. Just try and wear something comfortable, clean and tidy.
When you get to court

The practicalities

  • When you arrive you will have to go through security. This can take some time if it is busy when you arrive and your bag will be searched. You will need to empty your pockets. You cannot take any sharp objects in with you. You can read more about going through security at a court building or tribunal on the gov.uk website. If you have a disability that might make this process difficult for you, such as autism, you might find it helpful to take an autism passport.
  • Look at the board in the main entrance or ask at reception to find out where your hearing is and where the best place to wait is.
  • If you have any questions the court usher or clerk is a good person to ask. Sometimes these members of court staff have a black gown on.
  • Make sure you find someone who works at the court to let them know you are there – they will sign you in.
  • If you have documents for the court make sure you give them to a member of staff and make sure you give a copy to the lawyer for the other side too. But don’t expect that the judge will always have time to look at lots of documents if you turn up with them on the day. They might ask you to bring them to another hearing or to write a statement about them and why you think they are important.
  • You might have photos, voice recordings or videos on your phone that you would like to show the judge. The judge may not have enough time to decide, there and then, if these can be part of your case. There may need to be another hearing to work this out.
  • Always have pens and paper to take notes – if you want to take notes on an electronic device check with the judge.
  • You cannot use your phone in court, to make calls or to record.
  • If your hearing is a private hearing (as in most family cases) and you want someone to go in to the court hearing with you, you need to ask for permission from the court beforehand. So, make sure you tell a member of staff when you arrive that you would like to ask for someone to come into the hearing with you.
  • If you have a disability and you find using the court building and the court system difficult you can ask for help. What help you need will of course depend on what you are finding difficult. If you find there are barriers to how you can access the court service because of your disability you can tell the court and they may be able to make changes to help you. The law calls this the ‘duty to make reasonable adjustments’. The court will need to think about what adjustments or changes are needed and if it is reasonable for the court to make the changes then it will have to make them. If you are autistic then an autism passport could be a really useful way of telling people at court what you need. If you use an autism passport make sure you take it on the day and better still, send a copy to the court before your hearing so the judge can read it beforehand. If you have physical disabilities the court can do various things to help. For example they can provide forms in large print and guidance in audio or make sure hearing enhancement systems are in place. You can read more about what the court can do to help you on the gov.uk website

Speaking to other people at court

  • Try and stay calm and polite – even when you don’t feel it!
  • Don’t shout or swear – even if you feel frustrated or hard done by. It will not help you get your points across or let everyone, including the judge, see you in your best light.
  • While you are waiting to go in, is a good time to see if you can come to an agreement with the other side. Lots of people feel very uncomfortable about talking to the other side or their lawyer at this stage. But even if you are worried about agreeing to anything outside the court room it is very useful to hear what the other side has to say. It is much better to hear their position outside the court room where you can think it over, rather than only having a short time to respond to something new in front of the judge. You don’t have to agree anything if you are not sure.
  • If the lawyer gives you any documents make sure you read them, even if you would rather not! The judge will read them. If you don’t read them you won’t know what the other side is saying at that particular time - they may have shifted their position after some frank advice from their lawyer. Also if you don’t read any documents the other side has prepared you won’t have the chance to point out mistakes, which might help your case. Remember that you are unlikely to agree with what their documents say - the document will be the other side’s view on the dispute.
When you are in the court room

Remember! 

  • Don’t interrupt
  • Don’t get angry or aggressive
  • Don’t swear or shout
  • When you go in, remember to turn off your phone. You are not allowed to record or take photos of the court hearing.
  • Don’t worry about where to sit. Sometimes a court clerk or usher will take you into the court and show you. If they don’t, just go and sit at the front.
  • It is usual for everyone to stand when the Judge or Magistrates enter the court room. Depending on the court, you might also need to stand when you speak. The Judge will tell you if you are not sure.
  • The only people who have the right to speak to the judge are the parties or their lawyers. So if the other side has a lawyer, they will speak to the judge. The only time the actual person on the other side to your case will speak is if the judge asks them a question directly or when they are giving evidence. We explain more about evidence later.
  • What to call the Judge depends on the type of the Judge and the court you are in. Try not to worry too much about this. When you are representing yourself it is usual for the lawyer on the other side to speak first, even if it is your application. You can copy what they call the Judge or if not, just be polite and respectful, for example by using ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.
  • Listen carefully so that you are ready to answer any questions.
  • If you don’t understand a question ask them politely to repeat the question or to ask it in a different way.
  • Don’t interrupt other people when they are speaking - the Judge or Magistrates will make sure you get a turn to speak. Just raise your hand, so the judge can see you have something to say, and wait.
  • Don’t try to use legal language - just speak clearly and slowly with brief, to-the-point answers.
  • When you do speak make sure you speak to and look at the judge, not the other side.
  • Ask for extra time if you are being asked to make an important decision or look at new evidence, or if you are becoming upset.
If you have to give evidence and ask a witness questions

Sometimes the parties agree everything before the end of the case and there is no need for a final hearing (sometimes called a trial).

At a final hearing the judge has to make a decision as to how to bring a dispute to an end. The judge must decide what the facts are in a case where the people involved cannot agree them.

In a civil or family case judges decide whether or not something happened on the ‘balance of probabilities’. This means that if the judge thinks it is more likely than not that something happened then it is proved that it did happen. In criminal cases the magistrates or jury have to be ‘satisfied so they are sure’ that something happened (or ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ as it used to be called). This means it is easier to prove something in a civil court than in a criminal court. When a judge has decided the facts, they need to apply the law to those facts to get to their decision about the case.

If the court decides there needs to be a final hearing in your case this is when you and the other side both get the chance to give your version of events to the court. This is called ‘giving evidence’. Before you give evidence in court it is likely you will be asked to write a statement about your view of the case. This will be your main evidence to the court. Your version of what has happened and what you think should happen is evidence but it is often very helpful to have other evidence to support what you are saying. What this other evidence might be depends very much on your case and also what the judge says you may or may not give to the court.  To persuade the judge to agree more with your view of the case than with the other side’s view you need to set out the important facts and as you see them and support your position with other evidence if you can.

If you are asked to write a statement give yourself time to prepare it well. Make sure it includes all the important arguments you want to make and make sure you get copies of it to the court and the other side on time.

When you get to the final hearing in the court room you will get the chance to ask the other side questions and they will also be able to ask you questions. This is called ‘cross examination’. Before you give evidence you will be asked to take the oath. This means you have to swear to tell the truth on your religion’s holy book. Or if you are not religious, you can ‘affirm’. When you affirm that something is true you give a legally binding promise to the court without it being a religious promise.

If the court agrees it can be helpful to take a McKenzie friend into the court hearing. They can take notes for you when you are speaking and remind you of things you might want to say. In some courts a volunteer from Support Through Court may be able to come with you.

You are likely to know your side of the case well or even extremely well by this point but that does not mean you don’t need to prepare. When you know lots of details about a problem you can easily get side-tracked which won’t help your case. Try not to get totally caught up in your side of the case. There are always two sides to a story and the judge must look at the dispute from all sides. So this is what you need to do when you prepare. Try to anticipate the arguments the other side will make and think about what your response might be in advance, rather than at the last minute when the hearing is about to finish.  

Many of the tips above will be useful for the final hearing too. But next we explain some more. 

Our top tips on how to prepare for a final hearing

  • Highlight key things in the paperwork that help your case. But don’t go crazy with post-it notes or highlighter pens otherwise it will just confuse you when you are under pressure.
  • Write up brief notes on how you see your case overall. This is the picture you want to paint to the court. Use no more than one side of A4 paper to do this. This will help focus you before and during the hearing.
  • If you have already written a statement during the case your statement will be taken as your evidence to the court and the judge may ask you some more questions. This is called ‘examination in chief’. Then the other side’s lawyer will ask you questions. This is called ‘cross examination’.  Try not to get upset or offended by their style or manner. They are trying to get answers from you that will help their client’s position but it is nothing personal against you. Try to keep calm.
  • When you get to ask questions make sure you are polite. The judge will notice if you are losing your cool or seem like you are trying to bully the person giving evidence.
  • Write down the questions you want to ask beforehand. Think about your overall case - do the questions you have help you make the arguments that you want the judge to agree with? Try to break your questions down so that they make the person giving evidence answer with a yes or a no, rather than a long winded story of how they see things.
  • Make sure that your questions help your case and don’t just paint the other side in a bad light.
  • After all the evidence has been heard by the judge you and the other side will take it in turns to address to the judge. This is when you explain to the judge your arguments - say why you want the order you are asking for or why you don’t think what the other side is asking for should happen. This speech is sometimes called a ‘closing speech’ or ‘closing submission’.  You need to plan what you want to say in your speech but also be ready to adjust it if you need to, after the all evidence has been heard.

  • When it is your turn to speak make sure you speak clearly and that you keep to the point.

  • The judge is not ‘for’ or ‘against’ you; that is not their job. They will usually help or prompt you when necessary.
  • When someone asks you a question listen to it carefully and answer the question you are being asked. If you don’t understand the question, say so.
  • Take notes of what the other person or people giving evidence say. There may be points you disagree with and having notes will help you to argue your case more convincingly at the end of the hearing.

  • Take notes of the judge’s order at the end. You may be given a copy before you leave court but it is more usual to get a copy by post and this can take some time.
  • Ask the judge what the order means if you don’t understand it.

If your case is about family law take a look at these films:

Phone and video call hearings

More and more court hearings are taking place over the phone and by video. This means that, especially for shorter hearings, you may not have to go to an actual court building. Instead, arrangements will be made for the hearing to happen over the phone or by video.

If and when telephone or video hearings are used depends on what kind of case you are involved in. If you do need to take part in a phone or video hearing working out how to use the technology may be new to you. To join by phone or video, you will need a phone or a computer with internet access, a webcam and microphone (most laptops and all smart phones have these built in). You will also need a quiet space where you will not be disturbed during the hearing. The court will contact you to tell you how to join the hearing. You can read more about these types of hearings in the HMCTS guidance called A guide on joining court hearings by video call or phone.

Cases in the civil court

If you are involved in a case in the civil court and the other side has a lawyer it is likely that the court will say the shorter hearings need to happen over the phone or by video. The other side’s lawyer will usually be asked to make all the arrangements so that it works smoothly on the day. But if all the people involved in the case are Litigants in Person your hearings will be at your local court building in front of a judge.

If you want to read more about the rules on the use of phone and video for civil hearings you can read the civil procedure rules practice direction 23A - applications.

Cases in the family court

If you are involved in a family case you may also have some hearings by phone or via video. The person making an application to the court can ask for a hearing to be by phone. The court will usually only order the hearing to take place by phone if everyone who is entitled to be at the hearing agrees. Usually the court will ask the person making the application to make all the arrangements so that it works smoothly on the day.

If you want to read more about the rules on telephone hearings in family cases you can read the family procedure rules practice direction 18A

Getting legal advice from a lawyer

Our top tips for finding a lawyer

  • Shop around - the fees lawyers charge vary from firm to firm
  • Make sure the lawyer you use is qualified (as a solicitor, legal executive or barrister) and is a specialist in the area of law you need help with.
  • Be clear about what you have to pay and when - some lawyers do pieces of work for a set price. This is often called ‘fixed fee work’.
  • Try and choose a firm of solicitors that have the Law Society Lexcel quality mark. This means the Law Society has given the firm an award to say the firm gives clients a good service.
  • If you are on a tight budget then make sure you only use your lawyer’s time when you really need it. Making sure you are well prepared and organised for each time you speak or see your lawyer will keep the costs down. For more helpful tips on seeing a lawyer take a look at How to prepare for seeing a solicitor or adviser.

You are probably reading this guide because you really cannot afford to pay a lawyer at all. If that is the case, we hope that this guide has helped you feel better prepared to be a LiP. Remember there is a lot of useful information on the Advicenow website - start by choosing from one of these three options:

Going to the family court

Going to a civil court

Going to a tribunal

If you have read through the guide and now think you might be able to find some money to pay a lawyer for some legal advice it is often a good idea to get it early on so that you can work out what to do next before making any big decisions. Or, if you are nearing the end of your case it might be a good idea to spend whatever money you do have on getting a lawyer to represent you at an important hearing.

Depending on the type of case and your financial situation you may be able to get legal aid. Take a look at Getting help to pay for legal advice for a civil (non-criminal) case or, if your case is to do with a family problem, take a look at How to get legal aid for a family problem for more information on getting legal aid.

You need to think about how to find a good solicitor. Or, depending on your case you may be able to instruct a barrister without a solicitor. You can search for solicitors on the Law Society website or on the Gov.uk website.

If you are interested in going direct to a barrister it is important to understand that only certain barristers are trained to work directly with people involved in a court case (rather than with a solicitor as well). Barristers who do work directly with the public can help you with various different bits of your case. For example, they can give you specialist legal advice, help you to prepare court documents or represent you at court. You cannot get legal aid to pay for a barrister’s work done through the Direct Access Portal. You can read more about how the Direct Access Portal works on the Bar Council website.

Costs

Beware! Even if you don’t use a lawyer at any stage of your case you may still find there will be costs that you have to pay.

If you want to apply to the court for an order, there is usually a fee to pay to the court. The fee charged by the court varies depending on the type of application you are making. You may not have to pay the fee if you can show the court office that you are on a low enough income to get help with paying your court fee. You can read more about this in our guide Getting help to pay a court fee in a civil or family case.

If your case does not go well you might end up being ordered by the judge to pay some or all of the legal costs of the other side. If your case is about a family matter it is unusual for the court to tell one person to pay the costs of the other people in the case. But if, for example, your case is in the civil court and the judge rules against you then you may well be ordered to pay the other side’s costs. Legal costs can quickly mount up!

Another way you might end up with a big bill you hadn’t expected is if the judge decides you have not run your case well and this has meant that the other side has spent money when they didn’t need to. If this happens the judge might order you to pay some or all of the other side’s legal costs.

What does it mean?

Applicant / Claimant – the person who starts the case by applying to court for an order.

Closing speech/submission - the speech you give to the judge after the court has heard all the evidence. It is your chance to remind the court of your key arguments before the court makes a final order.

Court bundle - a file or files of paperwork about the case that everyone in the case uses, including the judge.

Court list - this is the name given to all the hearings that take place on one day at court.

Cross examination - when the other side or their lawyer gets to ask you questions as part of your evidence to the court.

Defendant / respondent - person or organisation a case is brought against.

Giving evidence - when you tell your version of events to the court.

Litigant in person – a person involved in a legal case without a lawyer.

McKenzie friend - a person who can come into court with you to give you support, acting as your eyes and ears in the court room.

Parties – both sides in a legal dispute that ends up in court.

Statement - a written document about your position in a legal dispute that you may be asked to write and give to the court and the other party (or parties).

Time estimate - how long the court thinks a hearing is going to take.

More help and advice

For more help on where to get legal advice from and to try and find legal representation go to Advicenow and look at the Going to court page. You need to decide which court you need help with - you might be in the family court, a civil court or a tribunal. Choose the one that is right for you and then you will find lots more useful information.

About this guide

The information in this guide applies to England and Wales.

The law is complicated. We have simplified things in this guide. Please don’t rely on this guide as a complete statement of the law. We recommend you try and get advice from the sources we have suggested.

Acknowledgements

Bar Standards Board logoThis guide was written and produced by the Advicenow team at Law for Life, with funding from The Bar Standards Board.

Advicenow would like to thank all those who provided advice and feedback on this guide, particularly Paul Bryson and team at Bristol Support Through Court, Jess Mant of Cardiff University, David Abbott of the Free Representation Unit, Shirley Hart, Annie Sands and Rowan Milligan.

Can you help us?

We are always trying to improve our service. If you have any comments on what you like or don’t like about this guide please visit our Feedback page.

If you would like this guide in another format please email guides@lawforlife.org.uk

5
2 Reviews

Very useful in deciding whether to represent myself or not

This guide is written in plain English, is clear and laid out well enough to give a very good overview of representing yourself in court (caveated by saying I haven't been yet, so its just based on this info and no real-life experience!!).
5
Shawn C on the 28 / 05 / 2020

Another great guide

Yet another really practical guide for Litigants in Person written in easy to understand language. It really gives a good overview of how the court system works and what you can expect if you don't have a lawyer. Lots of links to related information including films and other sources of support.
5
Paul B on the 29 / 04 / 2020

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