Navigating the Legal System: A Self-Represented Litigant’s Journey

By Brittany Koenig, Paralegal Navigator, Calgary

Navigating the complex world of family law can be intimidating and overwhelming, especially for self-represented litigants who likely don’t have a legal background. The legal system uses complex jargon and terminology that is difficult to understand, and there are rules and procedures that must be followed. Family law matters can also be emotionally charged, which can make it challenging to remain focused and objective as you work toward a resolution. However, with the rise of alternative legal services (such as paralegal or legal coaching services), self-represented litigants can get the legal support they need in a more accessible, flexible, and affordable manner. The benefits are clear: you maintain control over your case, make decisions that align with your interests and goals, and save money in the process.

Meet Farrah who has been dealing with her family law matter since 2006. Though she did have a family lawyer at various stages, Farrah has been representing herself since 2011. In 2019, she left her career to give her case her full attention and, after a ten-year legal battle, Farrah received a favourable judgment to close this challenging chapter in her life.

Farrah was coached by family lawyer and legal coach, Melissa Salfi, who provided some much-needed direction and the confidence to help her fight for her family. In the following interview, Farrah shares her experience and insights on how self-representation can be a viable option in family law matters.

Brittany: Tell us about your experience with self-representation in your divorce. Why did you choose to take that route?

Farrah: I had been working on my divorce since 2006. After 2 years and a significant financial investment in legal representation, I found myself without a parenting agreement and felt like there was little progress being made. I decided to represent myself and was successful appearing in front of a judge a total of 7 times and filing 8 applications on my own.
Brittany: How did your legal coach assist you? What did you learn through the process? Farrah: My legal coach helped me understand how to navigate the justice system, how to work with and communicate with judges, and what was reasonable versus what wasn’t in my specific case. I also learned that I was way more capable than I had given myself credit for and that I had to have a strong support system, including a legal professional, who could act as my sounding board.Brittany: What advice would you give to someone who is considering representing themself?

Farrah: Go and sit in the courtroom! I did this and it gave me confidence to see how it all works because court can be intimidating. Another piece of advice is to work with a legal coach. In hiring a legal coach, I didn’t have to pay for a retainer and got the help I needed when I needed it. Lastly, it is important to consider the culture of the law firm before you hire a legal professional. I found that the culture of the firm greatly influenced the way they treated their clients. I encountered many lawyers who I felt took advantage of me, which reinforced the importance of considering a firm’s culture.

Brittany: What would you do differently or the same if you had to do it over again?

Farrah: I had a positive experience working with legal coach Melissa Salfi. From our initial meeting, I could sense her genuine care and empathy towards me. She also has a shared experience as a mother, which made me feel that she was not just trying to profit from me but was truly invested in my well-being. 

How do you know if legal coaching or paralegal support is right for you?

Legal coaching isn’t for everyone, so it is important that you have clear expectations of what is required of you should you choose the path of working with a legal coach or paralegal navigator. When you work with a legal coach or paralegal navigator, you remain self-represented which means that you are responsible for managing your own legal matter. This includes drafting legal documents, responding to incoming correspondence, keeping track of and organizing documents sent and received, and preparing for and attending at any formal proceedings. 

Though it might seem intimidating, a legal coach or paralegal can help! Whether you want them to draft the documents, help you edit something you drafted, explain the court process or procedures, or walk you through how to get the documents filed or served, you can decide how much or little support you need along the way. To learn more about the coaching and paralegal services offered through Coach My Case, check out our website for information on legal coaching and paralegal navigation.

Here are some additional questions to ask yourself to determine if legal coaching might be right for you: 

Do you qualify for a subsidized legal service, such as Legal Aid? 

Subsidized services like Legal Aid, usually have income guidelines that dictate the level of support you may be eligible to receive based on your annual income. If you earn too much, and don’t qualify for services, you will be directed to seek out legal services elsewhere. 

It is also important to note that a lot of these services have long waitlists, so there can be some time to find a lawyer who is able and willing to take your matter on. Legal coaching or paralegal services can be a great option if you need someone to support you in the short-term while you wait for a lawyer to be assigned to your case.
Check out our free online resources page for a short-list of some of these subsidized services. 

Do you have the resources to pay for a lawyer to represent you? 

Under the traditional legal service model, you hire a family lawyer to represent you and that lawyer would manage all aspects of your case and take steps to move your file forward. This means that you tell them what outcome you are hoping for, they will advise you on the law and what is realistic considering the facts of your specific case, and then they will take any necessary steps to work toward that realistic outcome. Of course, your lawyer would keep you in the loop about communications and seek your instructions from time to time, but they won’t be bothering you about every little e-mail or correspondence. 

You are also typically required to pay a lump sum up front when you hire a lawyer (aka “a retainer”) that, on average, ranges from between $3,000 to $10,000+ depending on the complexities of your case. That retainer is held in the lawyer’s trust account as security so if you don’t pay the entire balance of your monthly legal bill, they will draw from that retainer to cover their fees. Thereafter, you would be billed at the lawyer’s hourly rate (typically ranging between $250 to $750 per hour) in 6-minute increments (or 0.1 of an hour), which is how you’d see it represented on your legal bill. To put this into perspective, an average 2-day trial in Canada can cost over $30,000….and that is just for the trial. 

Do you have the time and ability to manage your own legal issue? 

It is important to be realistic about the amount of time and effort that legal coaching may require. Even if you have a good understanding of the legal system and the specific laws that apply to your situation, you will still need to invest a significant amount of time in managing your own case. This can include things like reviewing and organizing documents, preparing evidence, and communicating with other parties involved in your legal matter. You will also need to be prepared to attend court or other formal proceedings, which may require you to take time off work or other commitments. If you have a particularly contentious matter, it is important to be aware that it may require even more time and effort. For example, if you are involved in a parenting dispute or a complex property division case, you may need to dedicate even more time to research and prepare to present your case effectively. However, it is also important to note that legal coaching can be a good option for people who do have the time and energy to invest in managing their own case. By taking a proactive approach and staying organized and focused, you can achieve great results and save money on legal fees at the same time.

Can you switch from legal coaching to a traditional legal services arrangement if things get too complex or if you change your mind? 

Absolutely! One benefit of working with Coach My Case is that we are connected to Crossroads Law, a full representation family law firm that operates in both British Columbia and Alberta. If you enter into a coaching arrangement and decide that you would prefer to have support, we can assist you in retaining a family lawyer through Crossroads Law. 

Can I hire a lawyer just to attend at court or another formal proceeding and then switch back to a coaching arrangement? 

Yes! As mentioned, Coach My Case is connected to family law firm, Crossroads Law. If you decide that you would like to have a lawyer attend a formal proceeding to assist you on a one-off basis, you can retain a lawyer through Crossroads Law under a limited scope retainer and then go back to a legal coaching arrangement thereafter.

By considering these factors, you can make an informed decision about whether legal coaching or paralegal services is the right choice for your specific legal situation. Remember, a legal coach or paralegal navigator can be a supportive and educational resource to help you navigate the legal system more effectively! If you are considering representing yourself, our team is here to support you every step of the way. Take the next step and book a free 20-minute consultation with one of our experienced legal coaches or paralegal navigators today!