Justice system rules and practices unfairly place self-represented litigants at tremendous disadvantage

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The deck is already stacked against self-represented litigants. Prohibiting the use of an assistant in court further ensures that self-represented litigants will lose.

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

Self-represented litigants often face a phalanx of lawyers in court; with each lawyer having their own junior to take notes and assist with exhibits and case management during the hearing.

In contrast to the latitude and even deference extended to their fellow legal professionals, most judges prohibit self-represented litigants from having an assistant or non-lawyer advisor in court. This systemic favouritism places self-represented litigants at serious disadvantage even when arguing relatively simple cases, but is devastating in more complex cases where there might be dozens or even hundreds of documents and other exhibits in play.

In my company’s civil case (Nelson Barbados Group Ltd. vs Cox et al), the defending lawyers filed tens of thousands of pages of documents as exhibits. As a self-represented litigant during my Contempt of Court hearing, I had to appear before the court alone and attempt to make my own notes as I simultaneously hunted through boxes for reply documents and exhibits.

The opposing lawyers, Gerald Ranking and Lorne Silver, made team notes and took turns handling the exhibits as the other addressed the court. Occasionally there would also be junior lawyers taking notes. The lawyers refused me permission to make recordings, so I was left waiting sometimes weeks for transcripts before I had accurate notes of what had transpired in court or at examinations.

This type of systemic bias by the justice system and courts against self-represented persons is simply unacceptable in an age where so many citizens cannot afford legal representation. Access to Justice is a human rights issue. It’s time that the legal profession acknowledged the systemic bias against self-represented persons.

Dr. Julie Macfarlane of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project just posted an excellent article about self-represented litigants being forced to appear alone in court. Well worth your time:

The Loneliness of the Self-Represented Litigant

When her case was called, Maria (not her real name) walked towards the front table in the courtroom and, anxiously shifting her papers, asked the judge if she could have her sister sit with her during the hearing. She explained that she could not take notes and listen to what was being said at the same time, and her sister could help her by taking notes for her. Maria said that she had become so overwhelmed the last time she appeared in court that she had started to cry, and felt humiliated getting so upset in public, in front of the people watching in the courtroom. If her sister could sit beside her, it would help her to stay calm and centred.

The judge said no. You have to make your own case, or go and get a lawyer.

But my sister would not speak, she would just take notes, Maria tried to explain.

The judge told her to stop talking and sit down.

Continue reading The Loneliness of the Self-Represented Litigant

Guest Column: How one self-represented litigant lost in court, but won the larger battle

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Reader ‘John” reminds us that ‘Justice’ can sometimes be won outside of court

I have seen one self represented litigant actually win, but in the court of public opinion after the case was tossed for a technicality in filing.

In 1995 or thereabouts Leonard Earl St. Hill represented the Scotland District Association against the Attorney General and Prime Minister of Barbados.

Mr. St. Hill was no lawyer. He appeared before Mr. Frank King and was opposed by the Attorney General.

The Prime Minister of Barbados, as far as the Scotland District Association alleged, acted ultra vires in placing a garbage dump in the National Park on land zoned for the supply of water.

Once the case was lost the Government applied for security for costs of $60,000 BDS if I remember correctly, effectively killing the appeal.

Richard Goddard and others mobilized opposition to the plan to locate the garbage dump in the National Park.

Funnily enough, it happened in Barbados.

Even funnier, the Attorney General was David Simmons, MP for St. Thomas and member of the then ruling Barbados Labour Party.

Simmons caused a storm when he was elevated to the Chief Justice of Barbados in 2001. The Prime Minister was Owen Seymour Arthur.

Both of them and Barbados are known to Mr. Best in his trials.

It is estimated that the Government of Barbados spent in excess of BDS$50 million (US$25 million) trying to mitigate the land slip issues but the springs in the hills above the dump made it into a lake, just as predicted by members of the Scotland District Association.

Twenty years later, no garbage has been dumped there; a victory in the court of public opinion for the Scotland District Association.

It was also a victory for common sense.

Sometimes victories are not won in a court of law and sometimes a loss in court is a win.

This article originally left as a comment by ‘John’ on Advice for self-represented litigants, Part 1: Walking away is sometimes the best decision

Advice for self-represented litigants, Part 2: The Important Rule that most self-represented litigants never learn, or learn too late.

lying lawyers Canada Barbados 5-SANThe Important Rule that most self-represented litigants never learn, or learn too late:

It is an opposing lawyer’s duty in law to deceive and obstruct you.

“Be instantly wary of any advice, suggestion, question or information from opposing counsel. They do not have your interests in mind; quite the opposite.”

For the moment, forget about Civil or Criminal court procedures. You need to know about the lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct; because these rules allow lawyers to deceive, cheat, abuse and obstruct the self-represented litigant in ways that ordinary people might consider to be unethical, unfair or unjust.

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

The most formidable challenge of being a self-represented litigant (‘SRL’) is that you must play in a game where the complete rules are known only to your opponents and to the referee (who is called ‘the judge’).

There are different sets of rules for different types of cases and different courts. The rules for Criminal proceedings differ so much from Civil procedure that most lawyers hesitate to cross into the other area of practice in all but the simplest cases. I personally saw one of Canada’s most senior and respected criminal lawyers overwhelmed by the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure in just a few months. He charged me $60,000 for his reputation and then walked away. (And I thought, “If a man with 35 years before the criminal courts can’t figure out the rules of civil procedure, I’m toast.”)

The rules themselves are complex, and are made even more so by normal practice where rules can be bent, avoided and waived under various circumstances. Different courthouses can have different procedural sub-rules where legal documents must be filed a certain way at one courthouse, and another way in the next town.

There is also the reality that some judges routinely allow lawyers to break, bend or ignore various rules; even as the same judges slam self-represented litigants for being unaware of, or breaking, the same a rules or procedures.

And into the middle of all this chaos steps the self-represented litigant; desperately trying to learn enough of the rules and procedures to be effective against opposing counsel who might have 20 years or more appearing daily in the courts.

You don’t even know what you don’t know.   Read more

Advice for self-represented litigants, Part 1: Walking away is sometimes the best decision

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Self-represented Litigant: “But I have so much invested in this case.”

Me: “You haven’t seen anything yet. You still have a car and a wife. If you continue, both will be gone by Summer.”

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least two or three long emails from self-represented people who are facing personal disasters and injustices before the courts. Most of the writers tell of years-long legal battles where they started out represented by a lawyer, only to be forced by dwindling finances to take over the case themselves.

I remind them that the legal system is set up so that lawyers normally profit by dragging out litigation, not by winning or settling for their clients in a timely or effective manner.

The writers speak of their surprise in discovering that truth and justice don’t seem to matter to the courts; only the rules of civil procedure matter along with the unwritten rules of the court staff that often change on a daily basis. (Last week a white cover on filed legal documents was fine, this week it must be green, or blue. Double-sided was fine last month, but this week documents must be printed single sided… and on and on.)

While a very few of the writers are clearly unhinged (or have become so after years of obsessively seeking justice that will never happen), the vast majority who write to me are educated, intelligent people who are highly competent in their own professions. Yet, they find themselves struggling and caught up in legal systems designed to serve the needs of the legal profession first, and operated by lawyers and former lawyers (now known as ‘judges’).

Lawyers and judges frequently become angry with self-represented persons, whether their anger is due to frustration or is deliberately summoned to control, intimidate or damage. The system seems designed to allow lawyers to overwhelm and destroy citizens who cannot afford the price of legal counsel; even when the facts dictate that any jury would side with the self-represented litigant.   Read more

Supreme Court of Canada makes first Tweet; 13 Canadians Tweet back, including me

SCC Supreme Court Canada Twitter Donald Best sml-private

Three hours after the Supreme Court of Canada tweeted its first on Twitter, only thirteen people had tweeted to @SCC_eng

But those who tweeted weren’t shy. Besides sending congratulations and expressing approval at the SCC’s move to improve access to justice, Canadians commented their views about Muslims wearing nicab for citizenship ceremony, that the SCC should move decision announcements from Fridays, charging Harper officials and provide a job for a friend. (I liked that last one.)

Chief Justice McLachlin commended the Court’s presence on Twitter: “Communicating on Twitter forms part of the Court’s commitment to open and accessible justice.  Sharing information about the Court’s work is crucial to its mandate, and Twitter is a useful tool in achieving this objective.”     Read more

Words from the Canadian Superior Court Judges Association… but do they really believe?

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“No one in Canada is above the law. Everyone, no matter how wealthy or how powerful they are, must obey the law or face the consequences.”

Canadian Superior Court Judges Association ‘The Rule of Law

by Donald Best

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

Time for some honesty and reality

There are times when, despite being over 60 years old and a former police detective, I feel like a naive boy scout to have had the solid faith I once had in our Canadian justice system.

My faith was not blind, but I believed that despite the weaknesses in our system, Canadians could be assured that there were no protected classes, and that no one was truly above the law. I no longer believe that.

In my life as a police officer, I twice said the words “I am arresting you for murder” – a phrase that not many of my fellow Canadians have spoken. Not many police officers have said those words once, let alone twice.

I have arrested police officers, priests, teachers, politicians, judges, nurses, bus drivers and school-aged children for everything from unpaid parking tickets to extortion and murder.

The Privileged Classes

And, rarely over the years, I’ve seen some from the privileged classes walk free from solid criminal charges when there was no logical reason in law for that to have happened. Read more

Julie Macfarlane, Denise Barrie, Chief Justice Michael MacDonald; shining stars of CBC’s Self-Representing Litigants special

“I think that the huge rise in the number of self-represented litigants in recent years is in some ways the great undiscussed issue of the legal system… More than half the people in Canadian family courts are there without lawyers…”

“We have a procedure in the legal system which has been around for a very long time, called ‘summary judgment’. It’s a way of forestalling or ending a case prematurely before it continues through the processes using up judicial and legal time. We found that there has been a huge rise in the number of summary judgment cases in the last ten years, and that most of those cases are now being brought where there’s a lawyer on one side and a self-represented litigant on the other.”

Julie Macfarlane, National Self-Representing Litigants Project; quoted in CBC’s The National feature The New Litigants #TheNewLitigants

“Sit down and SHUT UP!”

by Donald Best

by Donald Best, former Sergeant, Detective, Toronto Police

Over fifty percent of people appearing before Canadian family courts are self-represented litigants, yet according to CBC’s New Year’s Eve special The New Litigants, judges are still telling citizens representing themselves before the courts to “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!”

Nova Scotia Chief Justice Michael MacDonald has a different idea. He instituted an educational program for self-represented litigants. Justice MacDonald is a leader who deserves praise.

The legal system is the good ship Titanic; trying desperately to steer clear of the deadly iceberg named ‘Injustice’. The rudder has been put full port; but will the heading change in time?

The CBC special above is well worth 18 minutes of your time.

Donald Best

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