Empower Yourself: A Guide to Effective Legal Research for Self-Represented Litigants

By Chyanne Sharma, BC Legal Coach

Representing yourself in your family law case can indeed be an overwhelming experience as you are essentially taking on the role of a lawyer without the extensive legal training and experience. One of the key reasons self-represented litigants should care deeply about understanding, interpreting, and applying the law is because it directly impacts the outcome of their case. Legal research assists self-represented litigants and lawyers explore and analyze relevant statutes, regulations, practice directions, case law, and legal precedents that relates to the individual’s particular situation. However, when you are a self-represented litigant, mastering the art of legal research can be a scary process and we don’t want you figuring it out on your own! 

What is the “Law”? 

Laws are a system of rules, principles, and regulations that are created and enforced by a governing authority, such as a government or legal system, to regulate the behaviour of individuals and organizations within a society. The primary purpose of law is to maintain order, resolve disputes, protect individual rights, and ensure justice.
In family law there are two sets of governing authorities that can be applied to an individual’s matter: 

  1. Codified legislation - like the Divorce Act, the BC Family Law Act, or the Supreme Court Family Rules. Codified legislation is like a clear rulebook created by lawmakers that tells us how things should work in family law, such as divorce and child custody. When a legal issue falls under these rules, judges must follow them. 

  2. Case law (aka precedents) - is like a helpful guidebook that judges use when the rulebook doesn't cover everything. It's based on past court decisions and shows how the law was used, or applied, in similar situations.

Where codified legislation provides the main, foundational rules, case law fills in the gaps to helps judges make fair decisions - especially when the situation is unique or the rules are a bit unclear. 

When judges make decisions on specific legal issues, that decision should be followed as a precedent or as an example in future cases. This is known as the doctrine of stare decisis, which means "to stand by things decided." In other words, it is a principle that promotes consistency and reliance on past legal decisions to guide the resolution of current cases. It's like saying "let’s stick with what we’ve decided before, unless we have a really good reason to change it." This helps maintain order and fairness in the legal system. Together, these two things help the legal system work well and adapt to different situations in family law cases.

For self-represented litigants in British Columbia and Alberta, case law is a powerful tool that can significantly enhance your legal research and case preparation. Here's how case law can benefit your legal matter:  

  1. Guiding legal arguments - case law offers a wealth of precedents that show how similar legal issues were resolved in the past. By researching relevant case law, you can find persuasive arguments and reasoning that align with your own case. This will help you formulate stronger legal arguments and present your position more effectively.
  2. Understanding interpretations - laws can be complex and open to interpretation. Case law provides insight into how statutes and regulations have been interpreted and applied in different contexts. This understanding will help you where there is ambiguity in the law and will help you frame your arguments more accurately.
  3. Predicting outcomes - by studying case law, you can gain a sense of how certain legal issues have been resolved in the past. While each case is unique, having knowledge of similar cases can help litigants anticipate potential outcomes and develop strategies accordingly.
  4. Improving negotiations - familiarity with case law can enhance your negotiation skills. Having a strong grasp of legal precedents can make you more confident in negotiations, as you can cite relevant cases to support your positions.

How to Start your Legal Research 

Step 1: Understand your Case

Before you dive into legal research, take a moment to break down your case into its different legal issues. Family law can cover a wide range of matters from child support, parenting time, spousal support, property division, family violence, and more. Each case is unique with its own combination of legal complexities. By pinpointing the central themes of your case, you pave the way for targeted research that directly addresses your concerns. 

To start, you should identify and understand the central themes of your case as they will guide your legal research and strategy. A central theme in a family law case is like the most important story or idea that you want to tell the court - it's the main point of your case. Family law cases can be about many things, like who takes care of the kids, who gets what when you split up, or how much money one person should give to another. These are all different themes or key issues. Understanding the central theme will help to focus in on the key issues so you know what needs to be brought forward in court. 

To help identify the central themes of your case, it is helpful to gather all relevant documents like your marriage certificate, financial records, agreements, court orders, and any communication (letters, emails, texts) related to your case. These documents are vital because they provide evidence and context for your legal issues. For instance, tax documents for the last three years are often necessary to calculate the appropriate amount of child support. 

Another helpful strategy is to create a timeline outlining key events, like your marriage date, separation date, and any significant changes. This timeline can serve as a visual roadmap, helping you understand the progression of your case and pivotal moments. 

By gathering documents and creating a timeline, you can gain clarity about the central themes, understand what information is needed, and ensure you are prepared to navigate the legal process effectively. 

Step 2: Tapping into Trusted Resources to Find Reliable Information

Once you've outlined the core issues of your case, it's time to consult trusted legal resources that can help you gain a deeper understanding of the relevant laws. 

1. Start by looking at the online available resources: 

In British Columbia, the Justice Education Society's Families Change and the Legal Aid Family Law websites are great sources of guidance for self-represented litigants navigating the intricacies of family law matters. In particular, the interactive tools provided on the Families Change website allow you to explore scenarios and calculate potential outcomes based on different legal factors. These tools can aid in clarifying your understanding and in making informed decisions as you progress through your case.

In Alberta, Law Central Alberta and the Alberta Law Libraries websites also have great handouts and resources for self-represented litigants. 

These platforms have been designed with your needs in mind, offering a various user-friendly guides, informative videos, and interactive tools to ensure you're equipped to understand the laws relevant to your case. 

The BC and Alberta Courthouse Libraries are also a valuable resource for self-represented litigants seeking to dive deeper into their legal research. These libraries provide a wide range of legal materials, including textbooks, practice guides, and legal databases. By engaging with these resources, you can gain valuable insights that enable you to better understand the legal principles governing your case.

Textbooks and practice guides offer in-depth explanations of legal concepts, providing you with a solid foundation to build upon. These resources often provide practical examples and case studies, allowing you to apply legal principles to real-life scenarios. Legal databases, such as CanLII, are powerful tools that grant you access to statutes, regulations, and case law. 

It allows individuals to search for specific cases, keywords, or legal principles to find relevant precedents. Learning to navigate these databases effectively can significantly enhance your ability to find relevant legal precedents and understand how the law has been interpreted in previous cases.

To figure out the laws that apply to your family law issue, you can start by looking at the Family Law Act and any other related statutes or regulations. These are like the main rule books for family law in your area and can be found online. When you find a case, like a court decision, it's important to check if it's similar to your situation. Look for cases that involve issues like yours, such as child custody or spousal support. Pay attention to the facts of the case (what happened), as cases with similar facts might be more helpful.

To see if a case will work for your specific matter, check if it's from a court that has authority in British Columbia, like the BC Supreme Court or BC Court of Appeal. Also, see if the case talks about the same legal issues you're facing. If it does, read how the court made its decision and why. This can give you insights into how the law was applied in a similar situation.

Step 3: Consult with a Legal Coach

While you may be representing yourself, seeking professional guidance is not off-limits. Scheduling a consultation with a legal coach or paralegal coach can provide you with a clearer understanding of the legal issues specific to your case. Our experienced legal coaches can offer insights into the potential challenges you might face and suggest strategies for navigating them.

Defining your legal issues lays the groundwork for successful legal research in your journey as a self-represented litigant. By identifying the core themes of your case, gathering relevant information, consulting reliable resources, and seeking professional insights, you equip yourself with the knowledge needed to embark on effective legal research. With this solid foundation, you can dive into the world of legal research, armed with a clear purpose and direction that will undoubtedly contribute to your success in the family law arena. Ready to take your legal research to the next level and increase your chances of success? Book your free 20-minute consultation with one of our legal coaches at Coach My Case today.