The BSB has recently seen an unprecedented increase in the level of complaints received from litigants in person. In the first six months of this year, 35 such complaints were received. This is the highest number of complaints received from this source in the last decade and is greater than the total number of complaints received during 2009 and 2010 combined.
A contributing factor to the rise could be the cuts in legal aid which have inevitably forced more people to represent themselves. Nearly all the complaints concern the behaviour of opposing counsel with a significant number relating to allegations of “misleading the court” and/or “dishonest/discreditable” conduct. However, the high level of dismissals of the complaints received so far in 2011 (approximately 70% with 30% undetermined) indicates that litigants in person may not have a clear understanding of the role of opposing counsel and are perceiving legitimate presentation of a robust case as tantamount to making false accusations.
It is unlikely that individual barristers will be able to stem the increase of complaints from litigants in person. Nevertheless, barristers who find themselves against a litigant in person need to be particularly conscious that such parties may have a limited understanding of the realities of the adversarial system and therefore barristers should do their best, where it is possible, to assist litigants in person to understand the court process.
The BSB will continue to monitor the situation and it may be that action will need to be recommended to improve the information and support given to litigants in person by the courts.