Supreme Court offers help for unrepresented litigants
|Laurel Holonko, Colin Richardson (front) and John Simpson celebrate the launch of the new self-help centre at the Vancouver Law Courts, which opened its doors April 18.|
April 18 saw the debut of the Supreme Court’s new self-help centre at the Vancouver Law Courts. The first of its kind in BC, the centre offers resources to the growing number of litigants now going it alone in civil cases.
Tucked into the Provincial Court side of the law courts complex, the centre is easily accessible from the Smithe Street entrance on the north side. Visitors can expect a welcome from one of the centre coordinators, Richard Rondeau and Laurel Holonko, and will find a comfortable spot to sit and read brochures, booklets and manuals, fill out court documents, research online or watch a video to learn more about the court system and procedures.
The centre is set to offer services over the next year as a pilot project supported by the BC Court of Appeal, BC Supreme Court, the provincial and federal governments and a broad range of organizations in the legal community — the BC Courthouse Library Society, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, Community Legal Assistance Society, Legal Services Society, Law Courts Education Society, People’s Law School and Pro Bono Law of BC.
The Law Society, through the Access to Justice Committee, is following the project closely.
The problems of self-representation
As more people choose to handle their own cases, or feel financially compelled to do so, the centre may be an idea whose time has come.
Colin Richardson, Area Manager for the Vancouver Law Courts, and John Simpson, Manager of Community Services for the Legal Services Society are keen supporters, as well as co-chairs of the Centre Services Committee that has facilitated collaboration across the justice system.
Not surprisingly, they see the biggest problem faced by lay litigants who are on their own in court is that they are simply not trained for the task.
“A number of concerns exist about the unrepresented litigant’s ability to access justice in an environment that assumes an organized process among professional lawyers,” Colin Richardson says. “The key is whether the unrepresented litigant will be able to access justice. Reading, understanding and arguing the law, and knowing how to behave in court and follow Supreme Court procedures, can be enormously difficult for those who are unrepresented.”
Richardson and Simpson point to a common perception that unrepresented litigants may use more court time and resources because they may not be adequately prepared or know which documents are required, or they may not fill out the documents correctly. They may also fail to understand the roles of the various people in the courtroom or how to conduct themselves.
These problems can affect judges, counsel on the other side and counsel and parties in other cases. Thorny questions arise: Will the court’s neutrality be called into question if the judge prompts the unrepresented litigant to ask a question that he or she has failed to ask? To what extent is it appropriate for counsel on the other side to assist the unrepresented litigant?
What the self-help centre can offer
The self-help centre is one step in helping unrepresented litigants in civil actions, by offering them basic legal information, education and referral services.
The overarching goal is to increase access to justice for unrepresented people and efficiencies for the justice system — fewer delays, lower costs and fewer challenges for the court and for other litigants who are represented by lawyers.
As centre coordinators, Richard Rondeau and Laurel Holonko are available to provide information and assistance, though not legal advice, on civil and family matters. They can help direct people to appropriate resources, at the centre or via other referral agencies. Within the centre itself, visitors will find print, video and online resources that help them:
- learn about the court system and court procedures,
- access legal information (print materials, videos, legal information websites),
- locate and fill out the relevant court forms for family or civil cases,
- explore free legal advice services, and
- consider alternatives to court.
Among the many public legal education materials are a series of guidebooks on Representing Yourself in Court, recently published by the Law Courts Education Society. (For online copies, see www.lawcourtsed.ca.)
Litigants who need to do research on substantive law will be referred to the courthouse library for assistance.
Hours of service
The centre is open for drop-in, Monday to Friday, from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm and from 1:30 to 4:00 pm. For litigants outside the Lower Mainland who cannot visit in person, the centre’s website is a starting point for online research: see www.supremecourtselfhelp.bc.ca.The centre is not able to accept telephone or email enquiries.
What the future holds
The self-help centre is a pilot project that will be evaluated at the end of its first year of operation, Colin Richardson says, and decisions will be made at that time on future steps — such as whether to continue the service or whether centres might open in other locations. “Civil (non-family) duty counsel is not being considered at this time,” he adds.
Funding for the self-help centre is from the Law Foundation, Vancouver Foundation, Ministry of Attorney General and the Department of Justice.