Do-it-yourself-law — a trickle becomes a deluge
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – New study provides eye-opening profile of people who represent themselves in court
May 15 2013. By: Carol Goar
A few come to court with a swagger, insisting they don’t need a lawyer. Most people who represent themselves are desperate and scared.
By the end, almost everyone is disillusioned, frustrated and overwhelmed, says Julie Macfarlane, who just completed an 18-month study of self-representation in the court. “I was really horrified — perhaps I was naive — by the social, emotional and psychological consequences of this on many people,” the University of Windsor law professor said.
Many became so fixated on their case they drove away their friends and family. Some lost their jobs as their cases consumed more time than they had ever imagined. Most were bitter and deeply scarred afterward.’
“I can’t feed my children — and the judge is telling me to hire a lawyer.” – SINGLE MOTHER REPRESENTING HERSELF IN COURT
“The judge blasted me as an incompetent father,” recounted one of the 283 self-represented litigants in the study. “I was shaking. I had never been treated like that in my whole life. He sent me out of the court and told me not to come back until I had a lawyer.”
This is not a small problem. Two-thirds of the litigants in the family court system don’t have legal counsel. In the civil court system, self-representation has reached 70 per cent.
Self-represented litigants don’t fit the popular stereotype. Most are middle-class parents. Half have university degrees. The vast majority are over 40. In Macfarlane’s sample, 53 per cent started with lawyers but couldn’t afford to retain them as their trial dragged on.
It’s no secret in the legal community that the justice system is broken. Judges have complained publicly about it. The Canadian Bar Association has studied it. Overburdened court clerks have pleaded for relief.
In response, the province has “simplified’ its court documents into what bureaucrats regard as plain English. The Law Society of Upper Canada has run webcasts for its members on how to deal with self-representing litigants. And non-profit agencies such as JusticeNet have sprung up to serve people who can’t afford legal representation.
But these initiatives have scarcely made a dent in the problem. Moreover, they reflect a top-down approach. Macfarlane took the opposite tack. She went out and asked people who had faced the court alone in 12 cities why they did it, what happened and what changes they wanted to see.
Her findings were eye-opening. They spoke of being bullied by condescending judges; scolded by officious court clerks; left high and dry by lawyers when their money ran out and feeling utterly isolated.
Here are a few of their comments:
“I can’t feed my children — and the judge is telling me to hire a lawyer,” said one humiliated single mother.
“A mechanic will tell you how long it will take and about how much it will cost. A lawyer won’t do that,” said a man who had tried to negotiate a package of legal services he could afford. “I would like to tell future lawyers that when working with a self-represented litigant they should show the same respect and courtesy they would show another client.”
“Don’t assume we are stupid just because we have not gone to law school,” added a participant who had tried in vain to get help navigating the arcane language and unfamiliar procedures of the courts.
“I remember thinking to myself: do these people (the judge and court staff) imagine that I am enjoying this?” said a working mother who stayed up till 3 a.m. night after night for months to prepare for the trial. “I am here because I have no other option. I am just a mom trying to figure this out.”
There were a few accounts of compassionate judges and kind court employees. But most of the recollections were caustically negative. Some interviewees vowed never to enter a court again, no matter how badly they were wronged.
Macfarlane knows her report will be “upsetting reading” for legal insiders. She is not apologetic. Someone had to pierce their cosy professional bubble. “Public confidence in the justice system is damaged and diminishing further day by day.”
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