Increasingly, people are finding themselves in court without a lawyer to represent them. They are known as “self-represented litigants” (SRLs for short). The National Self-Represented Litigants Research Study conducted by Dr. Julie Macfarlane revealed that, generally, this is not because individuals have decided that lawyers are unnecessary. In fact, “[b]y far the most consistently cited reason for self-representation was the inability to afford to retain, or to continue to retain, legal counsel.” The study had much more to say about the nature of SRLs and their experience, issues of access to justice, and recommendations on ways to address the consequences of the growing number of people representing themselves. It is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in this topic. (Also, for another discussion of this report see the LawNow article What Self Represented Litigants (Actually) Want [link this])
The process of going to court is complex and time-consuming and SRLs need a great deal of information and support. The report affirms that although online resources have their limitations, they are certainly an important piece of the puzzle.
The National Self-Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP) is building on the above mentioned research study by continuing to advocate for changes in the justice system and by creating resources that address some of the identified needs. Coping With the Courtroom: Essential Information and Tips for SRLs is a primer for preparing both emotionally and technically for court. It is packed with information and practical self-help tips. Recognizing that court is not necessarily the best way to deal with a legal conflict, Settlement Smarts for Self-represented Litigants: How to Use Settlement Processes Knowledgeably and Effectively is another “how to” primer. It aims to enable SRLs to make effective, strategic and empowered use of settlement processes – settlement conferences with a judge, mediation, and negotiations and Offers to Settle. It examines purpose and structure, how to prepare, and consequences (what to do if you get an agreement and what if you do not) for each process. One of the freely available tools for legal research is the database of case law and legislation provided by the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII). The CanLll Primer: Legal Research Principles and CanLII Navigation for Self-Represented Litigants can help SRLs understand how to use it.
The above mentioned study reports that “[f]igures provided by the provincial ministries of justice show that the proportion of litigants appearing pro se in provincial family court is consistently at or above 40%, and in some cases far higher.” In Alberta, a section of the Alberta Courts website provides Self-help for Family Law with information about family justice services, court procedures and court forms. In four provinces, recognition of this situation has led to the development of specific websites dedicated to helping individuals navigate the family court system: British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (bilingual). These websites include topic-driven legal information, explanations of court procedures and access to court forms.
In Alberta, a section of the Alberta Courts website provides Self-help for Family Law with information about family justice services, court procedures and court forms. Navigate by following prompts on each page or from a topic menu on the left side of the page. Also, the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta provides an introductory booklet, Representing Yourself in Family Court.
Manitoba Justice provides family law publications including the Family Law Public Information Booklet (2014, 122 p.) which covers all aspects of family law but no court forms. For forms and court procedures visit the Manitoba Courts website.
In Ontario, a place to start is the family law section of the Ministry of the Attorney General. It deals with various family law topics as well as providing extensive resource lists. Included here is a nine-part Guide to Procedures in Family Court. Note that this is a bilingual site.
The Community Legal Information Association of P.E.I. provides a wide range of family law publications including Family Court Procedures and Resolving Conflict out of Court.
Again, from the referenced SRL study: “The same trend is spreading to civil courts, with some lower level civil courts reporting more than 70% of litigants as self represented.”
Pro Bono Law Alberta has tackled this by leading a project to create four videos related to civil claims: two are general – Courtroom Etiquette: What to do in Court and Civil Matters: What to do in Court – and two are for specific matters – Landlord & Tenant: What to do in Court and Foreclosure Matters: What to do in Court. Further, they provide a Civil Claims Resource Bank with cheat sheets, reference material and a Resource Manual.
An instructional video from the Canadian Bar Association Alberta Branch, A Successful Day in Court, demonstrates the basics of procedure in civil court for non-lawyers. It is about 25 minutes in length, and uses common types of courtroom disputes to explain the kinds of evidence you may need for your case as well as how to organize and present that evidence to the judge.
For SRLs elsewhere in Canada, check this list of provincial public legal education organizations. Most offer a variety of support materials about dealing with civil claims.