It should come as no surprise to anyone that most Canadians cannot afford a lawyer. In fact, lawyers often joke that if they had to pay a lawyer, they too couldn’t afford it. Nowhere is this dilemma more obvious than in family courts.
It is now commonplace to see self-represented litigants dueling with lawyers in most of our family courts in Canada. In British Columbia a parent or spouse can apply for custody and child and spousal support in the Provincial Court, which is purposely “user-friendly”. The Provincial Family Courts across Canada have successfully implemented reforms including plain-language court documents that are readily decipherable by lay litigants. The judges in Provincial Court are accustomed to hearing cases without lawyers and graciously assist those who act for themselves.
However, to obtain a divorce or property division, the only venue is each province’s Supreme Court, sometimes called “Queen’s Bench”, a most inhospitable environment for in-person litigants.
In a 2011 survey of Ontario divorce lawyers, conducted by Professor Nick Bala of Queen’s University Law School, he found that 48% of 167 responding lawyers indicated they were seeing many cases with at least one lay litigant and more cases where at some point in the litigation, neither party had counsel.
As family law becomes increasingly more complicated, despite the Canadian government’s sensible introduction of both Child Support Guidelines in 1997 and Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines in 2006, there are minefields enough for lawyers, never mind those who are forced to act as their own lawyer.
Will a lay litigant understand that in calculating their income for the payment of child support they must consider and understand complex nuances such as the possibility of the exclusion of non-recurring income; the need to include all of their capital gains income in their calculation and not just the portion they see on page two of their tax return; and their ability to deduct business expenses, union or professional dues and carrying costs? I doubt it. Not all lawyers have figured it out yet!
But affordability is not the only reason litigants refuse to retain counsel. There is another group of litigants who believe they can handle their divorce case just as well as a lawyer can. This smaller segment often become serial litigators who, because it costs them nothing, bring multiple frivolous applications, although some would say that lawyers do the same thing! Often when offered pro bono counsel, they decline.
Problems abound for all involved in the family justice system in the wake of the impact of lay litigants. Judges who must ensure that justice is both done, and seen to be done, are at the centre of the dilemma. If they provide too much help for an in-person litigant, that litigant’s spouse will see it as an unfair advantage and often, the court Rules that govern court procedures are less stringently enforced when it comes to litigants with no lawyer.
As well, litigants that pay for their own lawyer often become disenchanted with their counsel when they see their lawyer “helping” their estranged spouse who has no counsel. Lawyers are bound to treat participants in the justice system with courtesy and respect, traits that are frequently misconceived as their lawyer being “too friendly” with their opponent. Fee-paying litigants resent their lawyer telling their spouse what the law is or how the court process works.
For lawyers the problems are multiplied. They must walk a fine line in dealing with an unrepresented spouse and must ensure that all communication with an in-person litigant is documented in writing, with no exceptions. Of course, their clients are even more unhappy since it is their clients who pay the bills for the extra time and effort required to work with a lay litigant.
Lay litigants have also been known to send abusive communication to their spouse’s lawyer and from time to time, report their spouse’s lawyer to the Law Society, a complaint which can cost a lawyer hours of wasted time to respond to the often ill-founded allegations.
Is there a cure? They say that recognizing a problem is the first step to solving it. Certainly, the issue can no longer be avoided. It has taken centre stage as a result of lawyers, judges, court administrators, law professors, lawmakers, and the Canadian public decrying the slow demise of Canada’s family justice system.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang