Duties towards litigants-in-person: a timely reminder

Peter Jackson J has used a recent case to remind practitioners of the need to adapt normal working practices when dealing with a litigant-in-person. The case, reported as Re B (Litigant in Person: Timely Service of Documents) [2016] EWHC 2365 (Fam), involved the alleged abduction of a child.  The father was represented, the mother was not and, further, was not fluent in English. She was handed counsel’s 14 page position statement, together with 100 pages of authorities, at the door of court.  Clearly this was not a satisfactory start to the hearing.

With the support of the President of the Family Division, Peter Jackson J has issued clear and concise guidance which is well worth reading (http://bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/2365.html). He reminds us of each party’s right to know the case they are to meet.  This is even more important where English is not the litigant’s first language.  He comments that “[c]ourt hearings are already difficult for LIPs, but many, being inexperienced, are hesitant to complain about matters such as late service” (though that is not my experience!)

Representatives are reminded that the provisions of PD27A of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 are “minimum service requirements that should be adapted in individual cases to protect the rights of LIPs”. Importantly the judgment states that, where one party is a litigant-in-person, “the court should normally direct as a matter of course that the Practice Direction documents under PD27A are to be served on the LIP at least three days before the final hearing, especially where the LIP is not fluent in English”.

This clearly places an increased burden on the lawyers of the represented party, requiring early production of practice direction documents and provision of the bundle to counsel to allow skeleton arguments to be prepared early. However, Peter Jackson J remarks that such increased obligations are “necessary to prevent the intrinsic unfairness to LIPs that may arise from late service”. Though not explicitly stated, the implication must be that failure to comply with the guidance risks the adjournment of the hearing and an order in respect of costs. You have been warned!