Nice guys don’t come last

Well now, litigants in person (LiPs). We’ve got the name sorted out, thanks to the Master of the Rolls, March 2013. The next question is how we communicate with a LiP.

My caseload has always had a fair sprinkling of LiPs. When I was thinking about how to put across my views for your edification, I also had a read again of the Law Society Practice Note on dealing with LiPs. I think the basic rule when a LiP is your opposite number can be condensed to this: be kind and play fair. That’s all a bit touchy-feely, I am sure some of you are thinking. Hang on in there with me.

Whether you’re dealing with a LiP or another solicitor, the aim surely is to resolve your client’s case and allow them to move forward, feeling that they have been fairly treated. I think if you can be polite/kind with a LiP, you will achieve your aim far better than if you try and score points or allow yourself to get side tracked into the irrelevant side channels. You will also exit your client’s life without having trampled any possibility of a working relationship between your client and their ex. We are only in our client’s lives for a short period of time. Sometimes, we forget to think about what our client will be left with after we are done. I am not suggesting you should get everyone round the camp fire singing Kumbaya, but it really does not hurt to be courteous and polite.

This is easier said than done. It is a very fine line between being polite, helpful where you can (and where the court expects it) but not overly helpful so that you are giving advice or forgetting that the LiP is not your client. I have noticed a subtle change in the way my local court expects advocates to behave. The best way of describing it is that the process is adversarial but sort of inquisitorial too. We are expected to be helpful to the court, our client and the LiP whilst acting in the best interests of our client. Get juggling.

And this is the rub. Beyond having a basic game plan of not being horrid to the LiP, it really does depend on the case, your client (and our own clients can be tricky too), the attitude of the LiP and yes, you. You are bringing your own set of uniqueness to the party too. You’re only human and sometimes, guess what? You can be feeling a bit grumpy too and it takes super control not to let that damage any working relationship with a LiP who might be trying to be a bit of a smarty pants, failing to differentiate between you and their estranged partner.

A helping hand

Then there are the tricky questions of how far to explain things to a LiP before you tip over into giving advice. There is so much information available on the internet ready to read but it is often overlooked that we are a skilled profession: we spend years studying to qualify and then we carry on training. If it were so easy to understand it all, we wouldn’t get those messy cases where people have tried to do it themselves and frankly, it takes more to sort it out than if they had come to us in the first place. I personally don’t see the problem in helping a bit with areas such as procedure, especially if it means the case is progressed for your client.

I have had some unusual requests from both clients and LiPs for the things they want to achieve. I don’t see a problem with saying, look that is not something the court can/is likely to order and you need to get some advice if that is something you really want. It can stop those ‘irrelevant channels’ emerging. A colleague was told by a client very confidently that the client knew what she wanted and she wanted a ‘peppercorn maintenance order’. My personal favourite (pre Family Law Act 1996) was being told a client had a friend who was a barrister and she knew what she wanted: she wanted a ‘junction order, with a jouster and a powerful arrest’.

I think we are going to all see an increase in the number of LiPs we deal with what with legal aid going and the recession digging in.

Be kind, play fair.

Karen Dovaston is a solicitor at Jeffries Essex LLP 

Twitter: @karengribbon

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