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Being Self-Represented:  Is it an Excuse for Not Knowing Court Procedure?

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Being Self-Represented:  Is it an Excuse for Not Knowing Court Procedure?

If you have missed a court deadline, or if you were confused or unaware of proper legal procedures, is being self-represented a valid excuse? Will the court cut you some slack?

According to two fairly recent Ontario Court of Appeal decisions, the answer is a clear “NO.”

In the first case, called Carpenter v. Carpenter, the Court of Appeal had to consider whether to extend the lapsed deadline for the husband to appeal an earlier order in his family litigation.  The order he was trying to appeal from saw his court pleadings struck out entirely, for his failure to comply with an earlier court directive requiring him to pay $2,000 in costs within 10 days.

The husband was currently self-represented, but he had hired a lawyer during earlier stage of the litigation and was still receiving some limited advice from her along the way.   He missed the appeal deadline at a time when he was acting for himself.

In this scenario, the court said:

The fact that Mr. Carpenter was self-represented does not excuse his failure to comply with the necessary time limit or, once he was aware of the Final Order, to move promptly for an extension of time. Any participant in litigation, including a self-represented party, has a responsibility to familiarize himself or herself with the procedures relevant to the case. … As such, the fact that Mr. Carpenter took several months to seek out and then retain counsel to bring this motion is an answer but not a full and satisfactory explanation for his delay.

In making this declaration, the court drew from another recent Appeal Court decision in a civil case called McDowell v. Cavan-Millbrook – North Monaghan (Municipality), where in the process of rejecting the litigant’s excuse for his ignorance as to procedure, stated:

The appellant argues that being self-represented, he was unaware of certain procedural steps …. The court system often presents considerable challenges to people who are unrepresented by counsel. Participants in the justice system should not be denied relief on the basis of a minor deficiency. That said, a participant, including a self-represented party, has a responsibility to familiarize him or herself with the procedures relevant to the case. Here the delay was indeed inordinate and prejudicial, and resulted in a substantial risk that a fair trial would not be possible. The appellant’s conduct cannot be excused simply because he was self-represented. This would work an injustice to the respondent and to other participants in the system.

These Ontario Appeal Court rulings making it abundantly clear:  Representing yourself is not an excuse for being unaware of court procedures and deadlines.   Self-represented family litigants, take note!

For the full text of the decisions, see:

McDowell v. Cavan-Millbrook – North Monaghan (Municipality)

Carpenter v. Carpenter

At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders.  For more information, visit us at RussellAlexander.com