Court Cases & Orders

A Good Example of Bad Self-Representation


A Good Example of Bad Self-Representation

With separations, divorces and custody battles being so common, a frequent topic of cocktail-party discussion is whether it’s ever wise to represent yourself in a family law matter.

As an Ontario judge explains in a recent decision in De Cruz-Lee v. Lee, it can be a very unwise choice.

In the opening lines of a lengthy, 860-paragraph ruling, Justice Skarica summarizes the hazards of embarking on self-representation as a “cost-saving” measure:

This case is a classic illustration of the difficulty of obtaining justice when a trial is conducted by a party or parties who are self-represented. [The wife] was self-represented and conducted the trial by herself. It is said that a person who represents himself has a fool for a client. That saying should add something about how self-representation is about the most expensive trial lawyer you can pay for.

After detailing how a trial, originally scheduled to take between one and four days, ended up taking 9 days, the Judge added:

The dispute was over an approximate $53,000 held in trust. Regrettably, the costs of this trial will consume most if not all of that amount.

Next, Justice Skarica expressed some frustration at the fact that proper procedure was not adhered to:

I note that Superior Court trials in Family Court are governed by a variety of rules. These rules are designed to ensure trials are expeditiously run at some cost efficient level. At this trial, those rules meant nothing. Virtually all of [the wife’s] exhibits were produced for the first time at trial without prior notice on the respondent. They were allowed to be filed in any event due to the fact that [the wife] was unrepresented. [The wife] struggled with legal procedures and rules of evidence, which were observed more in breach than in rigour. When I produced law for [the wife] to make submissions on, she instead engaged in character assassination on the respondent, based on allegations not found in any of the evidence.

A little later in the substantive portion of the decision, in the course of reciting the facts that underpinned the ultimate ruling, the Judge lamented:

The reader may notice that as I review the evidence the facts seem incongruous, unwieldy, inchoate and at times just plain difficult to follow. This is because it was. I want the reader of the judgment to understand just how difficult and unorganized the evidence (that was admissible) was when presented to this court as a direct result of the conduct of [the wife].

Finally, the Judge ended the ruling’s de facto prologue with the following:

In writing this judgment, I have cautioned myself, that in the end, Ms. De Cruz-Lee was poorly represented and I am going to have to make allowance for that fact in making my decision.

Despite pointing out these many trial-related shortcomings, the judge no doubt went on to make a fair and impartial ruling in the case. Justice will have been done. Still, it’s puzzling and regrettable that a litigant would choose to put herself at such an obvious disadvantage this way, in what are no doubt very important legal proceedings (at least to her).

For the full text of the decisions, see:

De Cruz-Lee v. Lee, 2015 ONSC 1900 (CanLII)

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About the author

Russell Alexander

Russell Alexander is the Founder & Senior Partner of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers.