What Should Courts Do With Self-Represented Litigants?
While I never intend deliberately to harp on the perils involved with family law litigants representing themselves in court, there has been a recent spate of cases that really illustrate the risks involved – and not all of them come from the Family Law dockets.
In an April 2013 criminal judgment in a case called R. v. Duncan the judge put a downright humorous spin on the narrative relating to a routine highway traffic infraction by the accused. Among other things, the judge admonishes the defendant for his indiscriminate use of the Internet in preparation for his stint at representing himself at trial. The judge wrote:
It has been said that, given enough time, ten thousand monkeys with typewriters would probably eventually replicate the collected works of William Shakespeare. Sadly, when human beings are let loose with computers and internet access, their work product does not necessarily compare favourably to the aforementioned monkeys with typewriters.
Thus it was that the trial began with Mr. Duncan objecting to us proceeding on the basis that I had no jurisdiction over him. Mr. Duncan provided me with an “affidavit of truth”, a rather substantial volume that appeared to me to be the result of somebody doing a Google search for terms like “jurisdiction” and the like and then cobbling them together in such a way that it makes James Joyce’s Ulysses look like an easy read. This hodgepodge of irrelevancies relied upon by Mr. Duncan was one of the misbegotten fruits of the internet. Finding it was a waste of Mr. Duncan’s time; printing it was a waste of trees and my reading it was a waste of my time and public money.
Mr. Duncan did not strike me as a fool and individual acts seldom define people, but the red binder he offered to the officers and the “affidavit of truth” he offered to me in court were regrettable descents into foolishness and Mr. Duncan would be well-advised to be more discriminating on what parts of the internet he models himself upon in the future.
The judge in R. v. Duncan also refers to a case – now famous in legal circles at least – called Meads v. Meads which was rendered by an Alberta court last year. That case resulted in a 700-page court decision which dealt at length with what the judge defined as “Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Argument Litigants”, who are essentially vexatious litigants – usually self-represented – who “employ a collection of techniques and arguments promoted and sold by ‘gurus’ (as hereafter defined) to disrupt court operations and to attempt to frustrate the legal rights of governments, corporations, and individuals.”
Certainly the spectrum of self-represented litigants is quite large, and can vary greatly in terms of the litigants’ preparedness, familiarity with court processes, and individual objectives. (And in Family Law, the decision to try to avoid hiring a lawyer is usually cost-driven, rather than ideologically motivated.)
Still, it begs the question: Should courts have formalized processes in place for dealing with self-represented parties? What are your thoughts?
For the full text of the decisions, see:
R. v. Duncan, 2013 ONCJ 160 (CanLII) http://canlii.ca/t/fwsm0