In May of 2013, sixty delegates from across Canada were invited to Windsor Ontario to participate in Opening the Dialogue, an event to discuss the final report of Dr. Julie Macfarlaneʼs research study on self-represented litigants. Judges, lawyers, court services, policymakers, those working in public legal services and remarkably, 15 self- represented litigants came together to talk about the issues of self-representation and access to justice. Over the course of several days delegates participated in panel discussions, small working groups, and large group discussions. It was at this event that Jennifer Muller (British Columbia) and Derek Parry (Ontario), 2 self-represented litigants, met for the first time. Both of us found Opening the Dialogue to be a profound life experience that affirmed that we had a place in the conversation of increasing access to justice in Canada.
Following our return home from Windsor we began email and telephone discussions about the need to reach out and support other self-represented litigants. We decided that an organization was needed to organize national support and information.
In late 2014, SRLs Jana Saracevic (Ontario) joined NSSN to begin contributing to our organizationʼs development and resources. Each of us has become immersed in advocacy for SRLs.
As NSSN is a new organization, we are very much in the development stage. We are volunteers. We have only just begun to build a site where Canadians from across the country can find support and information within their own communities. We welcome you to join us, from your own city or town, and contribute what you can to your own community.
There is currently an epidemic of individuals representing themselves (Self-represented litigants or SRLs) in our Canadian courts. Current statistics indicate that in family courts in urban centers (e.g., Toronto) self representation is running as high as 75%.
SRLs need the legal community to collectively acknowledge this indicates a problem within our justice system of epic proportion and that SRLs are not in our courts for any reason other than desperate need.
In 2013 University of Windsor law professor Dr. Julie Macfarlane released the final report from The National Self-Represented Litigants Project: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants (SRLs). The impetus for this study came from the dramatic increase in the numbers of people representing themselves in family and civil court over the past decade, across North America. Moreover, the existing literature lacked empirical and qualitative data about the SRL experience. As a result many old stereotypes remained, including the widespread assumption that self-representation was a real choice, rather than a forced (financial) necessity. The purpose of the study was to give voice to the experience – including their motivations, expectations, consequences and impact – of self-representation from the perspective of SRLs themselves.
Funded by the Law Foundations of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario, data was collected in these three provinces. Over the course of 12 months, 259 SRLs in family court (comprising 60% of the total) civil court (30%) and various tribunals were interviewed or participated in a focus group.
The characteristics of the SRL sample are broadly representative of the general Canadian population. 50% were men and 50% were women. 50% had a university degree. 57% reported income of less than $50,000 a year and 40% (the largest single group) reported incomes of less than $30,000 a year. However the sample also included 18% with an income over $75,000 (consistent with studies elsewhere). The study found that by far the most significant factor in self-representing was the inability to afford to retain, or continue to retain, legal counsel. In fact, 53% of the SRL sample had been represented by legal counsel earlier in their action, but had exhausted their available resources before the conclusion of their legal matter. Others could not afford to even begin with a lawyer –
“Itʼs not that I think I can do this better than a lawyer, I have no choice. I don’t have $350 an hour to pay a lawyer.”
These individuals are unable to qualify for legal aid – where the eligibility threshold is now at the poverty level – but unable to afford counsel, at least not on a traditional retainer arrangements (many described seeking “unbundled” services but with no success). Although SRLʼs varied in their level of confidence at the outset of their self- representation, almost all stated that they gradually became disillusioned, frustrated and in some cases overwhelmed by the complexity of their case and the amount of time it was consuming. In particular many identified difficulty completing court forms (finding them extremely complex, confusing and challenging to complete, including for the 50% of the sample who had a university or college education, as well as difficulty finding anyone to assist them); and preparing for and appearing in court or at hearings (frequently cited as the most intimidating aspect of the SRL experience). There was widespread disappointment with on-line resources that were often less helpful than anticipated and a sense of isolation from personal support and assistance. The study data also revealed a range of substantially negative social consequences for SRLs. The impact ranged from financial burdens, social and emotional isolation and a myriad of health issues, both physical and emotional.
The study data illustrated the need for substantial change in the legal system in order to address significant impediments to access to justice for SRLs. 10 Action Steps for the SRL Phenomenon have been developed based on the study findings. These now form the foundation for the mandate of the National Self Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP). The NSRLP aims to continue to generate energy and motivation towards serious system change, reflecting the findings of the research study and including the voices of SRLs.
Some quotes from the SRLs in the study:
“My expectations? I canʼt even remember my expectations anymore. My life just fell apart.”
“The procedure as I read it sounded easy. I thought it was going to be easy- but it was anything but.”
“Iʼm scared because I doubt myself and there is a lawyer sitting on the other side.”
“I canʼt feed my children and the judge is telling me to hire a lawyer.”
As evidenced by current research, the legal system is extremely difficult to navigate without counsel and usually takes an emotional toll on individuals who attempt to represent themselves. NSSN hopes to provide social support for individuals who are unable to access legal counsel. As well, although we can not offer legal advice, it is our intention to link individuals to resources that may be of assistance.
Inclusion is at the core of the philosophy and values of this organization. Our philosophy is that every member of our community is entitled to access of justice and that it is a basic human right regardless of socio economic status.
How can we help YOU?
We are striving to offer support groups for people struggling with the process of representing themselves in court. We are hopeful that by bringing groups of individuals who are experiencing this unique situation together, they may feel less isolated and find support amongst each other. NSSN meetings will offer periodic guest speakers from the legal community who may be able to offer links to information and resources. Topics such as seeking unbundled legal services, paralegal services, and organizations that may offer volunteer legal services.
We are currently hosting meetings in British Columbia and Ontario. We encourage interested individuals to volunteer as Chapter Organizers in order to branch out and increase meeting availability in as many areas across Canada as possible.