My Story: Janice EtterNSRLP
When Janice Etter filed a claim in small claims court in November 2009, she never imagined what awaited her. When she found herself and her partner the victim of a scam. Janice brought her lawsuit to try to recover money she had lost to a con-artist, thinking that in the “people’s court” (small claims) she would not need to pay for legal counsel – “we never dreamt we would need one for this”.
Having met Janice in person, she is a model of responsible, organized efficiency. “I have done a lot of work to take my responsibilities as a litigant seriously” she told me. “I thought I understood small claims court, and I knew that you need to take in evidence and documents. I knew we may face some challenges, but had no idea what we were going to experience going in.”
Janice – who is in her 60s – describes a procedural nightmare. The defendant and his roommate filed claims against her, leading to 18 separate appearances including three pre-trials. Each time the case was put over to the next hearing, there was a lengthy delay – and after the hearing, another one. “It once took 6 months to write a decision. It was 5 pages and at the end it called for a new trial.”
Janice sees many of the problems she faced as the consequence of an arcane and complex procedure – even in small claims court – that allows unscrupulous defendants to take full advantage of the system and create endless delays. This problem is made worse by a lack of co-ordination among the system parts. “Some court officials were very helpful but made procedural errors…some judges are not fully knowledgeable (and don’t like to be told that)… mistakes kept being made. There was a failure to consistently apply rules and procedures or to explain why they were not being complied with.”
In addition, Janice experienced first-hand the vague and inconsistent “line” between legal advice and legal information that we have heard so often “handcuffs” court staff from being more helpful (see Research Developments this issue for a new NSRLP project on this issue in Nova Scotia).
Without the resources to afford full representation from a lawyer, Janice reflects that what many SRLs need and want is the assistance of lawyer to help them move ahead on their own – what at NSRLP we are beginning to call “legal coaching”. “What I need from a lawyer is strategic advice – here is my box of papers, tell me what I should use and how to use it, and what in here is not useful?”
Janice’s story is continuing – even after receiving judgment in her favour in April 2012, she has been unable to enforce the judgment.
All this is a far cry from Janice’s expectations when she first filed in “the people’s court”. “I cannot properly or fully convey how horrific and destructive this has been. You lose good friends as this starts devouring your life.” She describes the feeling of powerlessness as the procedure cranks up and how difficult it was – without the resources to hire a lawyer – to find help. “We may look like strong, competent women, but we’re on our very last legs. (The court) feels like a fortress, and I don’t have a battering ram.”
Contributed by: Julie Macfarlane