Judges Speak Out About Self-Represented Litigants
As family lawyers, we are well-aware of the common criticism by those involved in family disputes and litigation: that hiring a lawyer is expensive.
Although it may seem self-serving to point out the benefits of retaining experienced family law representation for your case, we can do one better: Here are some illustrations of the types of comments made by judges themselves about the difficulties of untangling the merits of a case when self-represented (or otherwise unrepresented) litigants – admirably as they may try – are unable to put forward their best case due to the lack of legal training.
For example, in a case called Leigh v. Milne, the Court of Appeal lamented the slow pace at which the family litigation had proceeded:
At the outset, let me address [the wife’s] concern about the process, culminating in the order under appeal. This proceeding on appeal is a graphic example of how difficult it is for a self-represented litigant to effectively navigate through the legal system. While the Courts struggle to adapt to the ever-increasing numbers of self-represented litigants, the legal system remains a process which works most effectively for litigants who are represented by lawyers. Judges expect that lawyers will police one another in order to keep a case moving forward at an acceptable pace and, when necessary, seek the assistance of the court to do so. Unfortunately, this leaves proceedings where one and, especially, where both of the litigants are unrepresented, susceptible to being unreasonably delayed by the party who does not want the matter to proceed. This is what occurred here.
In the recent Ontario decision called Szakacs v. Clarke, the court complained about the quality of court documents that had been filed in connection with a family case:
In self-represented litigation, the “pleadings” rarely reflect meaningful details of the issues to be tried. In this case, after reviewing the various orders in the trial record, I ventured further and read the notices of motion and the supporting affidavits leading to those orders for the purpose of learning the specifics of the dispute. This allowed me, when the parties were testifying, to raise certain matters that they had omitted or had wrongly concluded were unimportant. A trial judge should not be put in the position of having to find, present, argue and decide a case. Wearing that number of hats is unbecoming.
Finally, courts are mindful of the potential unfairness to the other side. While being willing to recognize that – out of a sense of judicial and procedural fairness – a self-represented litigant should perhaps be given a little more lee-way in connection with having to follow court rules and procedures to the letter, the court must still ensure that both sides of a family dispute get the fair hearing to which they are entitled. This was pointed out in a case called Baziuk v. Dunwoody, where the court said:
The problem of unrepresented parties, who may not be familiar with law and procedure, is one which is facing courts today with an ever increasing frequency. Courts are mindful of a degree of understanding and appreciation which should appropriately be extended to such parties. However, notwithstanding the difficulty with such parties attempting to properly represent themselves, courts must also balance the issues of fairness and be mindful of both, or all parties. Issues of fairness of course must always be determined in accordance with accepted legal principles and the law which has developed. A sense of fairness and understanding granted to unrepresented parties ought never to extend to the degree where courts do not give effect to the existing law, or where the issue of fairness to an unrepresented litigant is permitted to over ride the rights of a defendant party.
The point to take away from this, is that the decision to represent yourself in your family dispute may seem cheaper financially, but may have hidden costs in connection with the judge’s own perception and assessment of the merits. Make sure you make the right decision for your particular case.
For the full text of the decisions, see:
Leigh v. Milne, 2010 NSCA 36
Baziuk v. Dunwoody (1997), 13 C.P.C. (4th) 156;  O.J. No. 2374 (QL) (Ont. C.J. (Gen. Div.)