How to stop litigants in person going mad: more funds needed

No one wants vexatious litigants. But three cheers for the CAB at the RCJ, says Naomi Rovnick

“Bonkers.” “Pathological.” “On a downward spiral to nothing.” This is how some of the country’s leading litigators describe litigants in person, those who go before the courts without a lawyer.

They complain that many litigants in person are merely a nuisance that clog up the courts’ time at the taxpayers’ great expense and, worse still, hold wholly respectable law firms to ransom.

There might be some explanation for such a partial view. Of the 11,654 inquiries received by the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau (RCJCAB) between November 2002 and October 2003, more than half related to legal advice.

It is also true that there are those whose persistence alone forces the courts to spend a disproportionate amount of time and money resolving their (often unmeritorious) claims.

Last month litigant in person Angelo Perrotti, who at the time was making 22 separate applications to the Court of Appeal, lost a High Court negligence action against two law firms, Iliffes Booth Bennett and Bird & Bird, and a barrister, Francis Barlow. In January he lost a similar case against Collyer-Bristow.

The proceedings date back to a 1984 dispute over a family will. Perrotti first sued the administrator of the estate, then a series of law firms which had advised him on the case. Both Bird & Bird and Iliffes were retained by Perrotti only fleetingly, and both found themselves accused by him of negligence and at one point fraud.

In his judgment against Perrotti in the Iliffes and Bird & Bird case, Mr Justice Peter Smith opened with: “This is yet another judgment from the courts, which starts with the phrase, ‘this is yet another judgment in respect of the lengthy and complicated proceedings brought by Mr Perrotti’.”

The Lawyer was unable to contact Perrotti, but his case is not exceptional. He has not been declared a vexatious litigant, an order that the Attorney-General applies to the courts for after a litigant in person has had three High Court actions struck out. Thomas Mathew was declared a vexatious litigant in 1991, but is believed to have appeared in the High Court more than 200 times. Simon Fletcher, another vexatious litigant, fought a legal case for 57 years when, during World War II, his business was expropriated under the Emergency Powers legislation.

Litigants in person really can hold defendants, including law firms, to ransom. They have often lost multiple actions and have no money to pay the other side’s costs. Iliffes and Bird & Bird are likely to obtain an order for costs against Perrotti, but sources close to both firms privately concede that they have little chance of recovering their costs, which are believed to be in the hundreds of thousands. Their other choice, a settlement, would also have lost them money.

There are, of course, many litigants in person who have endured a genuine injustice and simply have no recourse to proper legal advice and have no option but to pursue the action themselves. The RCJCAB, which has 16 full-time staff but helped nearly 10,000 litigants in person last year with the assistance of volunteers from 50 law firms, has just released its annual report. Most of the RCJCAB’s clients cannot get Legal Aid as they are pursuing civil claims. The annual report includes case studies about genuine litigants in person, helped by the RCJCAB and volunteer lawyers, such as a woman bankrupted by Lambeth Council for a council tax debt on a property she had not lived in for 11 years.

The courts have to help litigants in person, and judges are required to give them as much assistance and extra time as they need. One senior litigator recalls watching a litigant in person spend seven hours explaining one point in a High Court case while his client looked on, askance, totting up the costs of his legal team doing nothing for a day and knowing that he would never get that money back.

That the RCJCAB has helped 10,000 in just 12 months is a positive feature of the judicial system as they prove the wide-ranging rights someone without access to a lawyer has.

But when a litigant in person spends several years in court fighting an unmeritorious claim you have to worry that they are clogging up the system and making it impossible for litigants in person with genuine grievances to get their cases heard.

So what can be done? Some lawyers talk of implementing draconian measures such as introducing court orders forbidding litigants in person to take a spurious claim forward. But whether a case has merit or not is something that must be resolved through the normal court process.

The RCJCAB, which runs on a budget of less than £500,000 a year, is the only available solution to stop litigants in person who do not have meritorious claims clogging up the courts. It has both paid and volunteer lawyers on hand to advise litigants on the merits of their claim. According to the RCJCAB, most people who are told their claims have no merit will accept this. The CAB also provides a holistic service, helping people who think they want to litigate but need something else, such as advice on managing debt, to get appropriate help.

But the RCJCAB survives on scant resources and an increase in the service is unlikely. This April, the RCJCAB lost more than 10 per cent of its funding when the Association of London Government withdrew its annual £58,000 grant to the service following a change in its policy. Until the RCJCAB can grow, we can only look on while people render themselves bonkers, pathological and bankrupt through their dealings with the courts.