By Chyanne Sharma, Articled Student, Vancouver
Everyone in Canada has the right to represent themselves, that means you can appear in court on your own behalf and do not need to hire a lawyer. However, being a self-represented litigant also means that you bear certain responsibilities as a participant in the justice system. While judges and court administrators try and meet the needs of self-represented litigants such as providing information, referrals, and general assistance, it is important that you make a reasonable effort to prepare your own case – remember, judges and court administrators do not have an obligation to assist self-reps who are rude, disrespectful, vexatious, or fail to take their own matter seriously.
Representing yourself can be scary and no one really tells you how to best conduct your matter. We’ve put together a few helpful tips to assist you navigate through your family law matter.
Representing yourself means that you must learn the rules of the Court, the process, the law, and prepare pleadings on your own. Just because you are not represented by a lawyer does not mean you are excused from following rules and proper procedure. And while you have the right to be in the courtroom during your hearing or trial, if you are disruptive, a judge can require you to leave. Representing yourself also means that communication directly comes from you, whether you are negotiating a settlement proposal, communicating with the courts, or with opposing counsel.
Communication can sometimes be difficult in family law, especially when dealing with your ex-spouse. Emotions can be tough to manage, you may face challenges with parenting, finances, or be overwhelmed with the legal process. Sometimes these emotions can cloud your judgment and could potentially lead to bad decisions. When representing yourself, it’s important to have the right tools in place so that you effectively communicate to help resolve your family law matter.
Communication with the Opposing Counsel
If your ex-spouse is represented by a lawyer, it is important to remember that you should be treated with respect and courtesy from that lawyer. However, the opposing counsel is hired by your ex-spouse to protect and advocate for their rights and interests – not yours. Their position will differ from yours so be sure you’re not mistaking that for rudeness. It’s best to keep all communication via email or letters to ensure no miscommunication. The opposing lawyer should also provide you with responses within a reasonable amount of time. This does not mean within 24 hours; lawyers have busy schedules and can sometimes have a delay in their response time, but you should expect to hear back from them within a two-week period. Lawyers also generally have office staff or their own paralegal/legal assistant. If you are trying to reach the lawyer to receive a response, ensure that you are dealing with their staff in a respectful and professional manner as they are working just as hard to ensure you receive a response in a timely manner.
Communication with the Courts
The court staff at the registry will always try their best to help you as much as they can. It is important to note that they cannot provide you with any legal advice, advise you on whether or not your forms have been correctly filled out, check your court forms for accuracy, interpret or enforce an order, or help you speak directly to a judge. Always speak to the court staff with respect, they are trying to do their best to assist everyone while following their internal procedures and sometimes that can create a delay in filing or processing times. While it may feel frustrating, maintain professional courtesy, and remember that they are doing their best to move things along in an efficient and productive manner.
Communication with the Judge
Judges cannot provide you with any legal advice or tell you how to run your case. Their role is to remain neutral and unbiased while they hear from witnesses, consider arguments, and make decisions impartially and fairly based on the law and facts as they find them. Judges may provide you with some information about the process and help explain or clarifying things along the way. If at any point you are confused and don’t understand what’s happening, ask the judge. However, communication with a judge only happens in a formal setting, such as in a courtroom, or through filing court forms. You cannot send letters, emails, or communicate with a judge outside of a hearing. When speaking to a judge in a courtroom, be sure to formally address them as “Your Honour” or “Mister/Madam Justice”.
Rules of the Court and the Law
The Rules of the Court are different depending on whether you have proceedings in Provincial or Supreme Court. These set of rules provide everyone involved in the court matter with steps that they must follow starting with initiating proceedings, how to serve documents, how to make an application, set deadlines, and provide the steps involved for trial. Therefore, it is important that you learn the rules that apply to the proceeding and it is your responsibility to ensure that you are complying with the relevant deadlines for having your materials filed with the courts. Be sure to set a reminder in your calendar for your scheduled court appearance. The courts do not send out reminders for Court dates and if you have a virtual hearing scheduled, make sure that you have dial-in information you need prior to your hearing date.
As you will be expected to prepare and present your own matter, you should also learn the law that governs the issues in your court proceedings. In family law, the main legislation you’ll be relying on is the Family Law Act, Divorce Act, or both. Sometimes the law can be straightforward and to the point, and other times, it can be difficult to interpret and apply to your matter. It’s a good idea to make use of services such as duty counsel at the courthouse, through referral lawyer programs, or legal coaching. There are also great online resources through government websites, the courthouse libraries and our website offers free resources such as blogs, online legal resources, video resources, and a family law dictionary for all those legal terms you’ll be hearing!
At Coach My Case, we have a team of experienced legal coaches and legal navigators that can help guide and prepare self-represented litigants in their family law matter. Call us today for your free consultation on more tips on representing yourself.