Tales of self-litigants don't support ideals of access to justice, law researchers discovering

It was Abraham Lincoln who once famously remarked “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

That may have been conventional wisdom back in the days when Honest Abe was U.S. President and a former attorney himself, but these days, growing numbers of individuals are opting out of hiring a lawyer when they go to court and choosing instead to represent themselves.

Julie Macfarlane

Law professor Julie Macfarlane.

“In Ontario, between 1995 and 1999, the number of people representing themselves in unified family court rose by 500 per cent,” said Julie MacFarlane, a UWindsor law professor. Dr. Macfarlane is conducting a research project to better understand how growing numbers of individuals navigate the legal system without the assistance of lawyers, and what their experiences are like as they try to obtain access to justice.

Since The National Self-Represented Litigants Project began last December, Macfarlane and her research team have interviewed people who have fought their own legal battles in family and civil courts in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

“We didn’t really have any research data that told us what the experience was actually like from the perspective of the self-represented litigant,” she said. “We tend in the justice system to go to the experts and ask them for their advice on how to solve policy problems.”

Macfarlane said a perception persists both in and outside the legal community that people who represent themselves are “crazy, stupid, or off-the-wall,” but she says the reality is a very different one. Many are university educated and feel confident about their case, but most are representing themselves because they have limited or completely depleted financial resources.

And while there are some success stories from people who were treated well by sympathetic judges, cooperative lawyers and helpful court clerks, most people report having had very traumatic and negative experiences dealing with a highly inaccessible system.

“One of the things in Canada that we must take responsibility for is that we very actively promote the idea of access to justice,” said Macfarlane, who will appear at 4:30 p.m. today on Research Matters on CJAM 99.1 FM. “Unfortunately when you translate that into what it actually means to navigate these systems without a lawyer, the experiences that people describe make them extremely cynical and skeptical about access to justice.”

On September 19, Macfarlane’s team will hold a forum for people who have represented themselves to share their experiences. Three sessions will be held. The first two will be held at 10:30 a.m. and at 3 p.m. at the Windsor Ontario Court of Justice, 200 Chatham Street East, in the boardroom on Level 5. The third will be held at 6 p.m. in the first floor conference room of university’s Faculty of Law at the corner of Sunset and University avenues.

To register to participate in one of these sessions, visit the project Web site or call 1-888-775-8125.


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