She claimed it was the “power of one” that did it — and that it saved her more than £600,000 in legal fees. But was Heather Mills’ decision to act for herself a triumph or disaster? And should it pave the way for a surge in DIY litigation?
Lawyers, Mills said as she celebrated her £24.3 million settlement, “couldn’t get anywhere near that figure”. Since she had ditched Mishcon de Reya, or they had ditched her, or both, we shall never know. But it seems unlikely that they would have done worse; and, some argue, would have done better.
Mills ended up with what most lawyers regarded as the right figure (it was widely predicted) — even if a fraction of the £125 million she had claimed. But she lost in every other sense: each claim was systematically demolished by the judge as excessive, ridiculous or without justification and she emerged in his stinging judgment as a greedy fantasist, “less than candid” and “devoid of reality”.
There is a second point about the Mills DIY scenario. She was not entirely acting on her own. Her previous lawyers had done much of the legwork. And she had opposite her the dream divorce team of Nicholas Mostyn, QC, and Fiona Shackleton. They, with the judge, Mr Justice Bennett, will have bent over backwards to ensure all her points were made, that nothing was missed and that she understood the implications at every stage.
Finally, she had David Rosen, a high-street litigation solicitor from Edgware, north west London, who acted as her McKenzie Friend — someone who sits with a litigant in person and metaphorically holds their hand. Usually such “friends” are not lawyers but in this case, hers was. So Mills was not the average litigant in person.
Nonetheless, she will have upped the profile for people contemplating acting for themselves. When Rosen stood up to appeal (unsuccessfully) against Mr Justice Bennett’s judgment being released — that final part of the action Mills handed to him — Rosen told the Court of Appeal judges: “Ms Mills is a litigant in person.” “I think we know that,” Lord Justice Thorpe replied to laughter.
With the high cost of legal fees and scarcity of legal aid, DIY route is increasingly tempting. The Royal Courts of Justice, in The Strand, has its own citizens’ advice bureau to help people going to law on their own. Its services, provided by three staff solicitors and a rota of part-time volunteer lawyers from law firms, are hugely stretched. At present it is running at 60 clients a week — anything from family cases to debt, accident claims or job disputes. In the past year it has advised 7,600 clients.
In turn, the rise of the litigant in person puts a strain on the courts, with judges obliged to bend over backwards to do the job that a lawyer would be doing. Cases may be delayed. The litigant may not incur legal costs but court users as a whole — and taxpayers — carry the burden.