By Brittany Koenig, Business Development Manager
As the cost of hiring a lawyer continues to rise, more and more Albertans are finding themselves in the difficult position of having to represent themselves in their family law actions. This trend has been recognized by judges, lawyers, and other professionals, who estimate that between 50% and 80% of parties in civil and family law actions are self-represented. This can lead to increased risk, uncertainty, and instability for those who feel they have no other option.
However, the rise of self-representation has also led to the emergence of alternative legal service options, which provide cost effective alternatives to traditional legal services provided by lawyers. These alternatives include paralegal services. Though paralegals cannot provide legal advice, they can offer a wide-range of legal services that can be incredibly helpful for those who are representing themselves - such as drafting or editing legal documents, compiling, and organizing documents, explaining legal processes, helping litigants prepare for formal proceedings, and providing legal information and resources.
Cathie Fitzpatrick is a paralegal navigator at Coach My Case, who has been expertly assisting clients with a wide range of family law issues, including divorce, parenting, child support, spousal support, and property division. With over 30 years of experience as a paralegal and instructor in the legal assistant program at Red Deer College, Cathie has developed strong communication and interpersonal skills, as well as a deep understanding of the legal system and the challenges faced by self-represented litigants.
In the following interview, Cathie shares her insights and experiences in supporting self-represented litigants through the complexities of their family law disputes:
Brittany: Can you walk us through your journey as a family law paralegal and share what motivated you to assist self-represented litigants through Coach My Case?
Cathie: After 35 years of working in the legal field, I have had the privilege of assisting clients with a diverse range of legal issues. My journey as a family law paralegal began when I attended NAIT in Edmonton to obtain a Legal Secretarial Certificate in 1985. I started working in a general law practice, but my passion for family law soon led me to focus on this area of practice.
As an experienced legal assistant, I taught in the Legal Assistant program at Red Deer College for 15 years, where I learned about legal technology and processes and gained valuable insights into the challenges faced by self-represented litigants in navigating the legal system. However, I wanted to refresh and refine my skills in family law, which led me to return to working in a private family law office in 2019.
Over the years, I have witnessed the access to justice crisis become increasingly prevalent. With the need for affordable and valuable legal services, I was thrilled to discover Coach My Case. As a paralegal navigator with Coach My Case, I can blend my legal background and education to provide practical solutions and guidance to those in need. It is incredibly fulfilling to help self-represented litigants achieve their desired outcomes and gain a sense of control over their legal matters. My work with Coach My Case is an opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of those who need it most, and I look forward to continuing to do so.
Brittany: What types of family law cases have you dealt with, and what is your strategy for handling them?
Cathie: I have dealt with many family law cases throughout my career, covering a range of issues. These include child support, spousal support, parenting, decision-making, and division of family property, among others. I have worked on these cases at both the Court of King's Bench level and the Provincial Court of Alberta.
In terms of my strategy for handling these cases, I always approach each client and case individually. I recognize that every client has a unique story, and their needs will be specific to their situation. Additionally, the parties involved in each case may not always be agreeable, and communication problems can arise, which can complicate the process.
Conflict levels are an essential consideration when handling family law cases. I have experience working with clients in both low-conflict and high-conflict situations, and the approach I take depends on the circumstances. I have assisted clients navigate a range of dispute resolution processes, including mediation, arbitration, negotiation, collaboration, and, in some cases, litigation.
In some instances, other organizations or authorities may become involved in the case, such as Legal Aid, Child and Family Services, or the RCMP. When dealing with multiple parties and stakeholders, my priority is always to ensure that my clients' needs are met and that the process is as smooth as possible.
Overall, my approach to family law cases is to listen carefully to my clients, understand their unique circumstances, and support them in finding the best possible outcome. I am committed to supporting and helping my clients navigate the often-complex terrain of family law.
Brittany: How do you ensure clients feel heard and supported throughout the legal process?
Cathie: I believe that effective communication is key to building trust and establishing a strong relationship with my clients.
To achieve this, I leverage my experience in education and the legal industry to develop a broad skill set and strong communication skills. I find that being empathetic and listening actively to my clients' concerns and needs is the best way to support them.
I take the time to educate my clients about the legal processes, so they feel empowered to make informed decisions and understand what to expect at each step of the way.
Ultimately, my goal is to provide my clients with the guidance and support they need to feel confident and informed throughout the legal process. By actively listening, providing clear communication, and being available to answer questions and concerns, I aim to help my clients achieve the best possible outcome in their family law case.
Brittany: What are the challenges you face when working with self-represented litigants in family law cases and how do you approach them?
Cathie: Working with self-represented litigants, especially those who have been previously represented, can be quite challenging at times. Commonly, clients will come to me with boxes of files and are looking for a new approach to resolve their family law matters. They are often frustrated, have limited funds, and feel victimized. Many clients are also dealing with mental health issues as well, which can further exacerbate an already stressful situation.
One of the most challenging aspects of family law is that there is usually no clear “winner”, and both parties must be willing to comprise to some degree. Helping clients navigate their emotions during this process can also be particularly challenging.
I recognize that that family law cases can be emotional and overwhelming for clients, so I prioritize clear communication and transparency to help them navigate the process as smoothly as possible. Ultimately, my goal is to help my clients achieve a fair and equitable resolution to their family law issues while providing the support and guidance they need to move forward as a self-represented litigant with confidence.
Brittany: What would you say to someone who is considering working with Coach My Case for their family law matter?
Cathie: Family law issues can be overwhelming, especially if it's your first time dealing with them. Clients can work with a one of our legal coaches to fully understand their rights and responsibilities and they can work with a paralegal to help guide them through the legal processes, prepare court documents, explain legal jargon in plain language, among other things. The great thing with Coach My Case is that they can decide who to work with and when.
With Coach My Case, you have the flexibility to choose service options that meet your specific needs while saving money and retaining control of your case. Whether you need help with preparing court documents, understanding legal jargon, or navigating the legal processes, we have the expertise to help you. Don't wait - schedule your free consultation with Cathie today!