Do courts give special treatment to litigants-in-person?

Andrew Granville Stafford, barrister at 4 King’s Bench Walk, London and Chairman of the Public Access Bar Association, considers the implications of Supreme Court case of Barton v Wright Hassall LLP


Picking your way through the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) can be a tricky business. It is not surprising that even an experienced litigant-in-person (LiP) can get tripped-up, which is what happened in Barton v Wright Hassall LLP. The Supreme Court’s view, however, is that ‘rules is rules’ and LiPs will be expected to comply with them just as much as lawyers are. 

Mr Barton wanted to bring a negligence claim against his former solicitors, Wright Hassall LLP. He needed to serve the claim by midnight on 25 June 2013. On the morning of 24 June he sent the claim by email. Unfortunately the rules only allow documents to be served by email in limited circumstances. Mr Barton had wrongly assumed this was one of them. In consequence his claim was timed out. 

Mr Barton argued that serving the claim by email should be deemed sufficient even though it did not comply with the CPR. The Supreme Court did not agree. The judges said that Mr Barton’s status as a LiP did not afford him special treatment. Lord Briggs said it would not be fair to require a higher standard of compliance from those that are represented by lawyers as compared with those representing themselves. Mr Barton was an experienced litigant and it was reasonable to expect him to familiarise himself with the relevant provisions in the CPR, which were neither inaccessible nor obscure. His failure to do so was fatal to his case. 

However, the decision is not all bad news for LiPs. Lord Sumption, giving the majority view, said a LiPs lack of representation will often justify making allowances in case management decisions and in conducting hearings. Lord Briggs also acknowledged that a LiPs status might ‘at the margin’ mitigate the gravity of non-compliance that would be viewed more seriously had it been by a lawyer.

Andrew Granville Stafford, barrister at 4 King’s Bench Walk, London and Chairman of the Public Access Bar Association.