Self-representation is becoming more common in courts across Canada. While precise figures are not always easy to come by, the problem of self-represented litigants is a serious issue, especially in civil and family courts. In some Canadian courts, the number of self-represented litigants now exceeds 80 percent. Although it can be tempting to deal with one’s divorce alone, a number of studies have shown that the costs of doing so are substantial to both self-represented litigants and the legal system itself.
There aren’t many national figures for determining rates of self-representation in Canadian courts, but some provincial figures do give an indication of the scope of the problem. CBC News reports that in Halifax, for example, 85 percent of litigated family law cases involved at least one self-represented litigant according to 2012 figures. In Alberta, meanwhile, self-representation in divorce and family courts has soared by 121 percent since 2006.
While much of the rise in self-representation has to do with concerns about the cost of legal fees, other factors may also be coming into play. For example, according to Metro News, one study found that although 40 percent of self-represented litigants had annual incomes of less than $30,000, 43 percent had incomes of over $50,000 per year. Such figures suggest that money is not the only factor leading some to represent themselves in their family law cases. Rather, many self-represented litigants may have a false notion that the legal system is easier to navigate than is often the case.
Why the rise in self-representation matters
The large numbers of self-represented litigants is creating problems both for the litigants themselves and the legal system. One study found that many litigants found representing themselves to be far more stressful, costly, and time-consuming than they had anticipated. In extreme cases, self-representation led to lack of sleep and even serious illnesses.
Those who work in the legal system likewise reported frustrations with the rise in self-representation. A survey of British Columbia judges and court officials, for example, found that self-represented litigants were more likely to submit incorrect and unnecessary documentation, thus leading to court delays and extra court costs. Court officials also noted worries about helping self-represented litigants since such help could be construed as legal advice.
Getting legal help
Going it alone with one’s divorce case may sound like a good idea, but it could lead to delays and costly mistakes. Once a divorce settlement is signed, it is very difficult to change or undo it, meaning that mistakes made today could have consequences for years in the future. Even in cases involving relatively simple divorces, an experienced lawyer should be consulted to ensure that one is getting the best deal possible.