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Litigants in person: part 6

The case that we have examined over the last few weeks concerned a "closing order" in respect of property which the local council did not consider should be open for letting purposes. In consequence they pursued proceedings against the landlord to stop it being let. As will have been gathered, apart from some initial suspicions of the litigant, the atmosphere was very civilised. That however is not always the case with litigants in person, particularly in respect of applications for closure orders.

A small proportion of "slum landlords" are suspected of using the lettings as an adjunct to their criminal enterprises. (There could be any number of reasons for this including money-laundering amongst others). A barrister pursuing a case in the North of England once had to pursue a claim against a particular slum landlord who we will call Mr X.

There were a number of difficulties about pursuing this case. Mr X. had a notorious reputation. He had featured in certain newspaper "exposes" about gangsters. These had commented not only on alleged involvement in organised crime, protection rackets etc but also suggested he was linked to terrorist support and gunrunning. In addition to this, in person he was large and imposing. It could safely be said that he was not someone who most people would want to get on the wrong side of.

This was certainly a problem after he had threatened certain of the council's witnesses when they had attended at one of the properties. True it is that sometimes idle threats are issued in the heat of the moment which one could safely assume did not mean very much. These hardly fitted into that category. Anyone who was threatened by Mr X was bound to take it very seriously indeed. These witnesses did. The council had taken the precaution of putting their professional rather than personal addresses on witness statements, but that hardly eased their fears. This was both because he could easily find them at work, and even if he could not nobody really believed that he would have any trouble finding out where they lived if he really wanted to get to them. In consequence none of the witnesses were actually willing to give evidence, although they sympathised with the position of the council. In the end orders from the court (what was then called a subpoena and would now be referred to as a witness summons) were obtained to make them come to court on the relevant date.

Unfortunately due to administrative error some of the witness summonses had not been served and they related to important witnesses: they were important not just for the council but also the defendant, because the council would wish to rely upon them, but if the defendant was challenging the evidence then normally one of the things he would want to try and do was draw out discrepancies between the various witnesses. In addition there had been an order about what had to be served on the defendant and through oversight it had not been completely complied with. That meant that he would not have seen all the material which it was necessary for him to see before the trial. Since Mr X was acting in person what would have been obvious to his legal representatives might not be obvious to him. Due to the failures unless Mr X agreed he wanted to go on regardless, (for example waiving the right to cross examine certain of the witnesses) the hearing would have to be adjourned. Therefore it fell to the barrister representing the council to explain this to him.

The barrister asked a court usher to identify Mr X and that he was appearing in person, and then walked over and started to speak to him. After a couple of sentences, it dawned on Mr X who exactly was that he must be speaking to. Pointing over at a council employee who was peeping round the distant door to watch what was going on, and who was recognized by Mr X, Mr X said "Are you acting for and with that lot, the council?". "Yes." replied the barrister. "Well you can f*ck off then, I'm not prepared to talk to you under any circumstances.". That was the end of that conversation.

The problems still remained, but there was plainly no point pursuing them with the litigant. When the barrister started opening the case in court, including the difficulties, the judge asked him if he had explained all this to the litigant. The judge was a well-known and much liked Northern Judge called Judge Jalland. Over the next few weeks we shall look at some of the more famous Judge Jalland stories and then you will have a better feel for how the judge was able to handle this situation. Politely but firmly, he explained to the litigant in person that a barrister presenting a case had various duties not just to his client but also to the court. These duties meant that it was necessary to ensure that the litigant in person understood what was happening and what points could affect him. The judge explained that so far from trying to "pull a fast one" by having a conversation with someone who was not trained as a lawyer, what the barrister was trying to do was to be very fair and make sure that the litigant understood why the case was likely to have to be adjourned and what his options were. When the judge had adjourned the case and everyone was walking out, Mr X walked over to the barrister. At this point the council employees were backing away. "Thank you very much for being so fair" was all that Mr X said before striding away. The council employees were amazed and put it down to the unconcerned approach of the barrister. The barrister put it down to the skilful way that the judge had handled the situation.

Michael J. Booth QC