Tuesday, 1 December 2009

“Here comes the judge, here comes the judge!”

My success in securing the Town Hall’s approval for redeveloping a neighbouring site, (Voice of the People: Friday 23rd October) convinced a local Old Aged Pensioner (OAP) that I would be just the ticket in his own campaign to avoid having his home repossessed.

Initially he asked me to help draft a letter to the judge, setting out why his house should not be repossessed after he had defaulted on a loan secured against it. Eventually I ended up writing the entire missive myself and sending it off under my own name, in the guise of a concerned neighbour. Shortly before the date of the hearing, the OAP suddenly declared that he had a hospital appointment and would I mind going to court in his stead and take a note of any ruling made by the judge? Reluctantly I agreed.

I had advised the OAP from the start to get proper legal representation but he had refused. He said he had tried ringing the local Citizen Advice Bureau but had been unable to get through. He was not prepared to waste his time trying again. I said it was unwise to risk jeopardising his future by not getting the best legal advice possible. If that meant staying huddled over a telephone for hours on end whilst he tried to get through to the CAB, it was a small price to pay. However I was prepared to do what little I could to help in the meantime.

I arrived at court early. As it was a mild day, I sat in the public gardens nearby and read through the material I had been given. Some of it I had never seen before. The OAP said he was giving me the papers on a need-to-know basis, a somewhat insulting attitude which I attributed to his advanced age and antediluvian notions about women. It almost proved a catastrophic own goal for him. I realised that this new information indicated that the OAP had been mis-sold his loan. At the age of 71, he had been offered a loan repayment schedule covering the next 25 years. His final payment was due when he was 96! The OAP’s short-sightedness meant I was not in a position to use such crucial information in his defence as it had not  been presented to the court in advance.The best I could hope for was that the Judge would agree to postpone the hearing until the OAP could attend in person. Muttering under my breath about nails and horse shoes I went into court.

Once inside the building I had to pass through security. As he handed me back my briefcase the security guard told me that the Advocates’ Room was on the second floor and to the right. As the daughter of a barrister I was secretly thrilled. He had mistaken me for a lawyer.

I was surprised to discover the OAP was simply one of a long list of Defendants appearing in Court against the same Claimants. As a result his session was running late and I took a seat outside. At one point a solicitor appeared with a client. I heard him mention the Claimants’ name and pricked up my ears.
“It is important that you don’t default again. Make sure you pay the right amount each month. Even if you can pay more, don’t! It’s better to put it aside and use it when money is short.”
The client thanked the solicitor profusely, grateful that he had been offered a lifeline. I thought the solicitor came across as genuinely kind and caring, certainly not what I had expected from a company offering long term loans to the elderly, secured on their own homes.

A court official went across to the solicitor and informed him he would now be appearing in court for the OAP’s case. It was the first he had heard of it. Consequently the solicitor had not been briefed and was forced to ask the court official to delay the hearing until he could get the relevant papers faxed across from the Claimants.

At length a court usher summoned me over to walk with the Claimants’ solicitor to the Judges’ chambers. The Judge himself appeared just as we were walking into the room.
“You realise that you have no right of audience here, but I am prepared to allow you to join us,” he said to me, before seating himself at his desk in front of us.
 I thanked “Sir”. My lawyer friend had stressed the importance beforehand of always addressing the Judge as “Sir.” It was not something I was used to. The last time I had spoken to someone with a title, a peer of the realm no less, he had told me me to call him Paddy and cheekily begged if he could help himself to a chocolate bar from the secret stash I kept in the desk, I was then perched on top of. Such inflammatory comments by aristocrats have been the catalyst for revolution in the past, but I magnanimously called a temporary truce in the Class War and let him have some chocolate.

As the Judge went through various points, I realised he was drawing heavily from my letter in defence of the OAP. The Claimants had set up three separate hearings in three separate County Courts, two of which were arranged for different locations but on the same day and at the same time. It seemed the Claimants used this tactic so that Defendants, who tried to wriggle out of one hearing by claiming a prior appointment, would be immediately faced with another. In my letter I had drawn the Judge’s attention to these separate hearings.
“The OAP and I are very concerned as to the status of your hearing,” I had written. “Does it mean that these other courts could overrule your own?” I asked with pretend naivety. I knew full well that the Judge’s professional pride would be piqued at such a suggestion.
“The other courts do not have jurisdiction in this case,” the Judge informed the Claimant’s solicitor and me. “This court alone is empowered to hear it.”
The solicitor admitted that he was not aware that separate hearings had been set up by his client. He asked if he could have an adjournment to give him time to respond to this and a number of other issues I had raised in my letter. The Judge agreed to the OAP’s later delight.

In the meantime, I had discovered that I could legally accompany the OAP into court in the role of a “McKenzie Friend” The latter is a legal term denoting a layman who can, with the approval of the judge, offer “reasonable assistance” to a litigant, who would otherwise be unrepresented in court.  I instructed the OAP in advance as to what to wear and how to address the Judge. The OAP said he was not going to start calling anyone “Sir” and would wear his shabbiest clothes.
“If you do I won’t go to with you,” I warned. The OAP might have been in jest but I was not. I now had a legal reputation to maintain.

Only moments before we went into court we were lucky enough to secure the services of a member of the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) who agreed to accompany us. This time the case was heard in open court and a different judge presided from his seat raised high above our own. I mumbled something about being a McKenzie Friend but the Judge didn’t seem concerned. He addressed a number of questions to the Claimant’s solicitor and also directly to me. I was the only person who had attended the previous session and therefore had the advantage of being able to remind the second judge as to points made by the first.

At one stage the Judge asked the Claimants’ solicitor for a specific piece of information. The solicitor desperately rummaged through the bundle of papers in front of her before being forced to admit that she didn’t have it and requested an adjournment to find it. I knew precisely where the information could be found amongst the court papers but it was not in the OAP’s interests to disclose it. The judge was furious. He had already expressed his anger at the Claimants’ audacity in block booking different courts in different jurisdictions to hear the same case.
“How can I be expected to making a ruling without this information?” he demanded irritably, adding coldly, “If you come back to this court without all the facts I shall have the case struck off.”

The OAP who had remained uncharacteristically meek and mild throughout the hearing was jubilant as the judge left the room.  The man from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau took the opportunity to go across to the hapless solicitor.
“It will harm your professional reputation if you carry on working for the Claimants”, he warned. In one respect he was right. A few months later the Claimants went bust.