Representing Yourself In Court by Shirley Dolan

Shirley Dolan
Shirley Dolan

Increasingly, people are deciding to represent themselves in court, including in Ontario’s civil and criminal courts. Cost is the main reason why people decide to represent themselves, either from the outset of the case, or after months, or even years of court appearances with a lawyer whom they can no longer afford. A second reason is the practice of the court prosecutor to try to get litigants to plead to a lesser charge, with the support of their lawyer. Rather than looking for another lawyer to represent them, they decide to go it alone, on their own terms. Is there anything that can be done to help the ever increasing number of self-represented litigants?

There is no doubt that anyone deciding to self-represent is at a disadvantage. Usually, they don’t know the process or the rules and that means many hours spent getting up to speed. The unfamiliarity with the court system can lead to an overwhelming amount of information being filed with the court, resulting in a slowdown of the process. Self-reps become frustrated by the system and the whole ordeal, which can take years, often taking its toll on the person’s health. According to one CBC report, “Kevin Hope and his wife Fay represented themselves in court in Saskatchewan. Under stress, Fay became ill and died. Kevin can’t blame the litigation directly for her death, but now he looks back at their six years of litigation with regret.” Another article from the Ottawa Citizen reports that judges do not look very favourably on self-reps, even if they are themselves lawyers.

I have some first-hand knowledge of how the court system works (or rather how it doesn’t work very well when you are representing yourself). Over the past nine months, I have been accompanying a friend to his court appearances in his attempt to defend himself on charges brought by a neighbour. Neither of us has much experience with the court system and one thing we learned early on, is that if you are representing yourself, then you are the last one called before the judge. So you are asked to appear at the courthouse at 8 AM. When you arrive, you see that the room is filled with people waiting to be heard. So you sit and wait, and in the end some technicality means that the process is delayed and you must return again in a couple of months. Each time you appear means a day of work missed and wages lost.

Denice Barrie, a British Columbia lawyer, says that self-represented litigants are powerless and that this must change. She believes that self-represented litigants are her to stay. Although there has not, to my knowledge, been any study done in Ontario (as there has been in Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Quebec) on the number of self-represented litigants in civil and criminal court, anecdotal evidence and interviews point to significant increases.

So, is there anything that can help self-reps? A book by Denice Barrie has been recommended by the Niagara Landowners Association called “Journey to Justice: A Practical Guide to Effectively Representing Yourself in Court”. It is available at Amazon in paperback for $25.64. Miss Barrie has practiced in both British Columbia and Ontario.