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A Study on Self Represented Litigants

Thursday 26th June 2008 08:16   (Updated: Thursday 26th June 2008 09:51)


Ann Sherman presented her research on self represented litigants, entitled "A Study of Self Represented Litigants in the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island" at CLIA's 2008 Annual General Meeting. The executive summary is posted and the full report is available in PDF format.


Executive Summary

Work began on this project Supreme Court Self-Help Centre in November 2007. It was completed in June 2008. The project was designed to find out what types of services might realistically be developed and supported to assist self-represented litigants in the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island.

In January, surveys were developed and distributed to:

  • Supreme Court Judiciary (5 returned the survey)
  • Supreme Court Staff (9 returned the survey)
  • Lawyers (13 returned the survey)
  • Self-Represented Litigants (SRLs) (10 returned the survey)
  • Six people were also personally interviewed.

Of the 10 SRLs who responded to the survey:

  • Two are younger than 34; six were aged between 35 and 54 and two were aged between 55 and 64.
  • Every SRL who responded had graduated from high school and had some post-secondary education. Four were community college graduates and four had graduated from university.
  • Four SRLs earned less than $30,000; eight less than $50,000; and all of them under $80,000.
  • Four female and six male SRLs responded.
  • Seven of the SRLs were working, two were receiving EI and one person was out of the paid labour force.
  • All SRLs had telephones, a personal computer and their own email address. Six of them had a public library card.

Most respondents from the legal profession and the courts system perceived SRLs as a problem for the Courts. They said that they:

  • do not know the law or procedure
  • often hold beliefs which do not reflect the law, such as "If I dont see my child, I should not have to pay child support"
  • have difficulty with Rules of Court and presenting evidence
  • have unrealistic expectations and demands
  • cannot negotiate in an objective way--cannot objectively assess risk, or cost and benefit, and can't dispassionately communicate with the other side
  • are too close to the case and get irrelevant and / or emotional issues confused or intermingled with legal issues
  • do not have access to the assets and services necessary to present their case in proper form
  • often lack the necessary education to properly express themselves and present their case
  • make poor witnesses

They also said that:

  • court services are stretched and should not be doing more to help self-represented litigants
  • people should not be encouraged to represent themselves in court or to believe that they do not need to be represented by a lawyer

These comments were supported by SRLs who said they needed:

  • help with how a trial/hearing goes--the etiquette and format, and information about witnesses
  • help with the order of events in court
  • a glossary of the legal jargon used by the judge
  • a review of potential outcomes
  • an outline of court procedure
  • more information about the consequences of not going vs. going to court
  • information about actual procedures and how to word applications, motions and variations

They said that they did not have a lawyer because:

  • Legal Aid was denied (four instances) and
  • they could not afford a lawyer (seven instances)
  • they did not need a lawyer to go to court (four instances)

Information from all of the returned surveys was collected and used to develop eight recommendations to be forwarded to Community Legal Information Association, the Law Foundation, the Office of the Attorney General and the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island.

Recommendations:

1. That the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island develop a means of identifying cases involving self-represented litigants so that statistics may be maintained and obtained when required

2. That CLIA take on the role of developing written materials related to the Supreme Court process and procedures.

3. That CLIA, using recently purchased software, review Court Forms with the object of creating plain language, interactive, PDF documents.

4. That CLIA work in collaboration with the court staff to develop, promote and distribute legal information materials about the court process.

5. That the Supreme Court explore the feasibility of making alternative dispute resolution an integral part of the court process for SRLs.

6. That the Office of the Attorney General expands the current mediation service provided by the Family Law Centre to assist SRLs with the early settlement of child support, child custody and access, and family asset issues.

7. (Notwithstanding the recent announcement of additional funding for legal aid) That the Office of the Attorney General ensures that the availability of legal aid services be increased by raising financial eligibility and expanding civil legal aid to cover a wider variety of family cases and other types of civil disputes.

8. That the Office of the Attorney General establish a Child Custody and Access Office, similar in mandate to the current Child Support Guidelines Office, and providing a similar level of support for people with custody and access issues.

9. That a Law Courts Information Centre be established.

 

The entire report is available in PDF form here.

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