How User Friendly are Legal Forms? A Small Experiment.

How User Friendly are Legal Forms? A Small Experiment.

I recently set one of our Project research assistants the unenviable task of  completing the forms to file for divorce in the three provinces in which we are interviewing self represented litigants (Alberta, BC and Ontario). “Sure” said Kyla Fair breezily. As a law student about to enter her final year of law school she was justified in feeling upbeat about this assignment. “Keep a log” I asked Kyla. “Please write down how much time you spend, each step you take, and exactly how it goes.”

The results of our small experiment with the user-friendliness of court forms are now in. Kyla is looking askance at me when I suggest she might try the same thing for the small claims court forms in the three provinces. No, she did not have a lot of fun with this assignment and it opened her eyes to the struggles of those without legal training with some of our court forms.

First, she found herself reading language and terminology which was in some cases familiar to her – but only because she had taken (and passed!) Civil Procedure in law school. Kyla commented “I saw a number of terms that I did not understood, and many more that a person without legal training would have no idea what they meant.” Second, the forms constantly asked for “supporting documentation” without explaining what type of documentation was needed (and what would be inadequate). The length and number of the forms quickly became overwhelming. “I was quickly losing track of all the forms I needed to fill out.” And this was just Ontario. Keep going Kyla.

On to Alberta. Same experiences. What does “Praecipe to note in default” mean? (Kyla wasn’t sure herself and as a law professor of 30 years standing, neither am I). What would an untrained person make of even the term “serve,” or  “commissioner of oaths”?  Kyla also noted that neither the Ontario nor Alberta forms provided any information about what to do once they were completed, where to bring them, what steps to take next? Was all this for naught?

Finally, British Colombia. There is a great deal of material on-line to help British Colombians complete their divorce forms…for an uncontested divorce. Unfortunately it was only at the very end of the forms and after many hours of labor that Kyla found this note. Resources for filing for a contested divorce are thin on the ground. The advice given – a common theme throughout the resources provided by all three provinces – is to seek legal advice. A perfectly reasonable suggestion – especially in light of the above – but perhaps not terribly practical when the individual has no resources for a lawyer and does not qualify for Legal Aid.

We shall be publishing some more parts of Kyla’s log on the Facebook page for comment.

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