Being your own lawyer

By Bhag Singh

In court, one can always represent oneself. Beware, however, that it could be an uneven playing field.

In these times of economic downturn, it appears that more cases will be filed on account of loans taken and other financial obligations assumed.

When sued, not everyone is able to have the services of a lawyer. Without legal aid or the services of a pro-bono lawyer, it can be costly to engage counsel. In such circumstances, presenting one’s own case is an option.

A foreign paper reports that in the United States, more people are representing themselves in court. This has not only caused congestion but also raised questions of how just the outcomes are or can be.

Similarly, individuals here are likely to begin representing themselves if this is not already happening. Yet there does not appear to be a mechanism or system in place that can effectively help them.

As such, most of the time they are unprepared for the legal procedures. Unless guided, they are likely to fail to bring and present the right documents or evidence. In consequence, it is likely that they will fare poorly whatever the merits of their case.

Faced with such a situation, an individual can resort to various bodies that provide legal aid. However, this may be limited to giving advice or it may cover representation in court, depending on the nature of the problem, the individual involved and the provider of the assistance.

Except for criminal cases where a death sentence is involved, there is no firm assurance of obtaining legal assistance in terms of representation in court. This is particularly so in the case of civil disputes.

The Government has a Legal Aid Bureau, and the Bar Council also provides legal assistance.

However, where such assistance is available, there are usually limitations. This is because a person may be deemed eligible for the facility only if he passes a means test in terms of his assets and income.

Quite apart from litigation in the ordinary courts such as the Magistrates Court or Sessions Court, there are also situations where a person is required to appear personally and present his case whether making a claim or resisting one.

There are also special tribunals where a person may make a claim. In such instances, the aggrieved person may have the option or be limited to presenting the claim himself. In this case, the procedures are kept simple and formalities minimal.

Another example is where a complaint is made to the Industrial Relations Department following a person’s dismissal which he perceives to be unjustified. The complainant will be seeking to be reinstated in his position.

In such a case, there is no adjudication but merely steps to mediate and reconcile the parties. Yet it does constitute making a decision with somewhat serious consequences.

At first glance, it may appear that keeping lawyers out is a good idea. There will be no legal fees, and the matter can be kept simple and dealt with quickly.

However, this may not always be for the good of the individual. This is because the entity which he claims against will necessarily be represented by an officer. That person may be legally qualified and experienced in handling such matters. This, in a way, creates an uneven playing field.

Given the nature of the complaints that such tribunals or bodies deal with, the disadvantage to the individual may be ameliorated by the role played by the presiding officer in the light of the procedures involved.

On the other hand, when it comes to litigation in the ordinary courts, an individual is in a somewhat different situation when he appears himself. This is because there are more technicalities and procedures involved which need to be complied with.

In some countries, there are “self-help” centres in the courts where facilities exist to aid and guide such people. In some cases, court lawyers or the court staff provide help to the individual.

However, this is more likely, and the assistance more effective, if extended to litigants in relation to specific areas such as claims for debts, landlord tenant disputes and other areas where the issues are uncomplicated.

Like most parts of the world, we have not moved very far in this direction. Thus it is not always possible or practical for the court to guide the individual or assist him. Many people who cannot afford a lawyer or are not qualified for legal aid and find dealing with the procedures too daunting, just give up and let matters take their course.

This is certainly not an ideal situation. Organisations that provide legal aid could hold “information” sessions for the public to brief them on claims. A more detailed discussion of how such situations could be dealt with should come next.

(Copyright in this article vest with Bhag Singh and is reproduced here for non-profit study.)