This article is intended for those who are representing themselves at a court hearing, known as ‘litigants in person,’ as well as those who will be legally represented but will be attending a court hearing for the first time, have never done anything like this before, and may not have met and discussed their case with their barrister or solicitor. If you are an applicant, a respondent, a defendant or a witness, these tips may make your court hearing less of an ordeal.
If you are about to meet you barrister or solicitor for the first time, or have to represent yourself in court, there are a few things you should know. These are the top 5 suggestions you may find helpful, deduced from over 30 years experience as a barrister. Lack of preparation can slow you down, put you off what you meant to say, distract you or make you mind go blank when your turn comes to speak to a judge or magistrate. You will be unfamiliar with legal processes so why make your life harder by not being ready? By following a few simple rules you can prepare yourself for a court hearing.
So, you are due in court, what preparation should you make?
Tip 1. Take a pen and paper. You will need to make notes. No matter how good your memory, write it down. Whether you want to remind yourself what you want to say to your representative or to the court, or make notes of conversations with your opponent or their representative, or witnesses, write it down. Put it this way, if you don’t write it down then you will have to remember it. Get a notebook. Only you have to read the notes. No one else need see them.
Tip2: Get the case papers organised. Whether you are organised at home and/or at work, or utterly hopeless at keeping track of paperwork, it is in your interests to prepare for a court hearing. This is not a game. Court hearings are serious. Get some lever arch files and some file dividers. Organise your case papers into sections, in chronological order:
Section 1 for court applications, court orders and hearing notices.
Section 2 for witness statements of evidence.
Section 3 for expert reports.
Section 4 for correspondence with the other side and the court (in chronological order).
You can even have a section 5 for your notes. That way you will know where your documents are, and not be left searching for a document while the court is waiting for you.
Now you have all the relevant documents in a file, don’t forget to take them to court with you. They are no good to you left at home. As the saying goes, ‘It is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.’ If you are going to court, take all the case papers with you. That means ALL the documents that may be relevant to the court case. How do I know what I’ll need? It means that you take with you all the court papers, solicitor’s letters, orders, applications, notices of hearing, witness statements, expert reports, photos, plans, maps and any notes you may have. The court will need at least one copy, your opponent/s will need one each.
Tip 3: File and serve documents you want to rely on.
You will not be able to rely on any document that has not been filed with the court & served on your opponent/s in advance of the hearing in accordance with the deadlines set by the court in court directions. It means that you will not be able to ambush your opponent/s by producing at court a document that has not been disclosed in advance, and may be left paying the costs of the hearing if it is adjourned because of late production of relevant evidence.
Witness statements: These should contain all the relevant evidence you wish to put before the court, in narrative format (like telling a story) in numbered paragraphs, with pages numbered too. Permission is needed from the court to rely on witness statement. When the case is listed for trial/final hearing, the court will give directions for the production of evidence. A witness statement template is available at the Court Service website: https://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/procedure-rules/civil/standard-directions/general/witness-statements
Exhibits: These are documents you may wish to refer to in your statement of evidence, proving what you say. They should be numbered and be attached to the end of your statement. For example, you statement could say “I attach a copy of the (receipt/letter as the case may) as exhibit 1.” Other documents can be added as exhibits 2, 3 and so on.
‘File’ means sending your evidence (but not your notes) to the court office dealing with your case, always quoting your case number, and explaining who you are & what you are enclosing. Keep copies of all correspondence so you can prove what you have sent, when and to whom. Sometimes documents get stuck in court admin, so remember to send them to the court in good time for your hearing, and always bring spare copies with you to court.
“Serve’ means sending your evidence (but not your notes) to each of your opponent/s, separately, via their home address, or via their solicitor if they have one, by first class post, quoting the case number, and explaining who you are & what you are enclosing. Again, bring spare copies. Post offices will give you a timed & dated receipt if you buy your stamp/s from them. This is proof of posting, keep it safe in you file.
Notes: You do not have to send copies of your notes to anyone, and you may be giving points away by doing so.
Video & Audio recordings: The court will not often watch videos & audio recordings. There are exceptions, but the court usually requires a transcript of any recording you may wish to rely upon at court, so it can be read in advance. Some courts still do not have the facilities to watch videos, mp3 of mp4 files, and it is impractical to hand round your mobile phone for everyone in court to view. If you have relevant recorded evidence you should transcribe the relevant parts of the recording. Copy videos to CD/DVD or memory stick. If there is no sound, then summarise on paper what the recording shows, with time signatures so the relevant part can be watched without having to view the whole recording.
Tip 4: Find out where the court is and how to get there. Whether you intend to drive or go by public transport, it pays to investigate your journey to court in some detail. Where can you park? How far is the train/bus station from the court? When does the court open? What time should you get there? If you are due to attend court as a party to court proceedings or as a witness, lack of preparation for your journey will hold you back and may ruin your day. Getting to court late and flustered is not going to help you at the court hearing. Get there early, at least an hour before the hearing. Court hearings are listed at a time that suits the court, but can be changed at the last minute. You are meant to be there ready and waiting for your case to be called into court. If you are not there, hearings may proceed without you, orders can be made in your absence.
Tip 5: Copy your notes to your advocate. If you have prepared some notes for you advocate, he or she will always like to read them in advance. Do not give them to your opponent. Most barristers and solicitors prepare for court cases in the days before the court hearing. If they don’t have your notes in front of them can’t very well read them. If you do not give them your notes until the day of the hearing, your advocate at court may not have much time to read them. Get your notes to them several days in advance. It takes time for notes to get from receptionist to solicitor, or solicitor to barrister.
If you are a litigant in person, you should still make notes, it helps concentrate the mind on the important issues. But do not give your notes to your opponent. Your notes are for you only. Make notes that you can understand as only you will be reading them. Be brief. Get to the point. No one at court has the time for waffle. If you have a point worth making, get to it. If you can’t, you probably don’t have a good point. Write legibly. Type if you can. It’s easier to read typed notes than handwritten ones. Use highlighters, summaries, ‘post it’ notes, colour coding. Just remember that most printers produce only black and white printouts. If you want to rely on photos, get copies made, number them in a sensible order, so you can refer to specific photos by number or letter.
Going to court is a daunting experience for many. You may be up against professionals or an experienced confident litigant in person. Give yourself the best chance of winning by doing your homework on the case beforehand. You may think you have a watertight case, but lack of preparation could mean you still lose if you are unable to present your case properly. It is better to be prepared than to stumble and lose focus. When you have to address a judge or magistrate if you don’t know what you want to say in advance, you may find your mind goes blank when you get to your feet to speak to the court. Without notes you might not remember what you wanted to say, you might not be able to present your case properly. But your notes should not be read out in court. They are a guide for you, not a script. Bullet points, numbered paragraphs, page numbers will all help you differentiate between points, as will underlining, bold or italics. You should read your notes before presenting them orally to the court, to make sure you are familiar with them.