SHOULD I REPRESENT MYSELF
The amount of commentary and controversy surrounding self-represented litigants seems to be growing. Certainly there are many who believe that people who self represent are clogging the courts, costing the system and the person on the other side way too much money, and in reality doing themselves a huge disservice.
The area seeing the most self represented people is family law. There is good reason for that. Fighting someone over custody of or access to your own children, over the family home, the cottage, and over money you desperately need to support yourself and your children can be enormously expensive. The financial as well as the emotional toll can be overwhelming.
The family law process in Ontario is designed to cost you money at the same time that it tries to help you reach a negotiated resolution. There are conferences to attend – case conferences, settlement conferences, trial management conference – all of which require a conference brief and a court attendance. If you are represented by a lawyer, that will cost a significant amount of money.
Legal Aid is not even on the radar for most people. And not everyone has access to the thousands of dollars needed to retain a lawyer in the first place and to sustain that relationship. And even if you do retain a lawyer, many clients are actually fired by their own lawyers when they cannot come up with more money. If they cannot find another lawyer willing to defer his or her fees then they end up having no choice but to represent themselves.
It is a fact that most people who self represent enjoy it about as much as a root canal with no anesthetic. Many people simply have no other choice. It is a huge undertaking to learn even the basics of how to represent yourself. Family law has become increasingly complicated and difficult to navigate. There are Family Law Rules that you need to be familiar with. And then there are other Rules called the Rules of Civil Procedure that cover areas not looked after in the Family Law Rules. And then there are multiple statutes that you need to have at least a basic knowledge about – such as the Divorce Act, the Family Law Act, the Children’s Law Reform Act, the Evidence Act, the Partition Act, and on and on. And all of that before you even try and fill in your first form. There is even a rule that says that if you are going to represent yourself you have to abide by all of the rules. The courts will not accept your pleas of ignorance.
Figuring out which forms are required is another hurtle that many find insurmountable. Every time you show up at the court office to file your forms they are examined by a clerk and if they are wrong you are sent away to try again another day. The court clerks will not give you legal advice. So where do you go to get advice. There are family information centres in some court houses that can give you some limited guidance. But it is not nearly enough. If you just had someone to talk to who could give you some guidance, discuss strategies, review negotiation techniques, courtroom protocols, and everything else you need to know.
The internet is the source of most of the information sought out by self represented litigants. It is also a good source of misinformation, outdated information, outdated forms, and in general mass confusion. Where do you go to get some practical advise. There are a few such organizations that do charge for their advice but it is well worth it. And there is a new one opening soon that will offer fantastic services to those who want to DIY. We will be providing all of the contact information you need about these resources in a later edition of our blog.
STEVEN M BOOKMAN is a Toronto lawyer specializing in family law. He can be reached by email at sbookm[email protected] or telephone at 416-488-2243.