New Data on SRLs: The Spectacular Rise of the Savvy Self-Represented LitigantNSRLP
This week we published our latest SRL Intake Report, collating and analyzing the information we received from 73 self-reps who completed the Intake Form posted on the NSRLP website between April 2015 and December 2016.
Although the SRLs who have the patience and time to complete the Intake Form (thank you!) comprise a fraction of those who reach out to the Project annually, we have been tracking their encounters with the justice system and sharing it with both the legal community and the public since March 2014.
Long after the formal research interview period ended (December 2012), SRLS continued to contact the Project with a desire to share their stories—and we recognized this unique opportunity. By continued access to a SRL Intake Form, we could continue to hear from SRLs, despite the fact that we no longer had the resources to conduct full interviews.
This realisation led to the development of the self-complete Intake Form, which is displayed prominently on our website.
More of the same
- SRLs are clustered in the lower annual-income brackets (below $50,000 and especially under $30,000). These individuals will not qualify for legal aid (in Ontario, the individual income threshold for Legal Aid is $12,800 per annum).
- There are a significant number of SRLs who earn more than $50,000 a year (close to what is considered middle-income Canadians) but are still unable to afford full representation – or these people began with a lawyer, but run out of funds. We continue to see a small number of high earners – above $100,000 – self-representing, but this group has usually already run up a significant amount (commonly $25,000 and sometimes much, much more) of legal costs.
- In light of the above, it is unsurprising that we continue to see just over half (here, 56%) of all SRLs beginning with legal representation, but later reaching a point where they are unable to continue to afford full representation. NSRLP now has three data points that corroborate this (2013, 2014-15, and now 2015-16).
- Despite efforts by NSRLP to promote the use of McKenzie Friends or courtroom companions, most SRLs still go to court alone.
- The pervasive myth that SRLs are only interested in their own cases, and that Access to Justice is not important to the Canadian public, seems to be rebutted by the 99% of respondents who ask to be added to NSRLP’s ongoing newsletters, blogs and other social media feeds. We continually meet former SRLs who want to work on Access to Justice issues long after their own case has ended, in order to make the SRL experience less frustrating for others whose circumstances will also require that they self-represent.
- Finally – experiences of self-representation, with very few exceptions, continue to be reported as overwhelmingly stressful, disillusioning, and even traumatic.
Has anything changed?
There are some interesting differences between this new data and our earlier data points.
We are cautious about placing too much emphasis on small quantitative changes, given the small size of the sample and the sampling method, but three measures merit a second look:
- This respondent group rates their prior experiences of receiving legal services less favourably than respondents in the 2013 Study and the 2014-15 Intake Report. This – and the overall tenor and the detail of the open-ended comments and narratives provided by this group – may reflect an increasing disillusionment with legal services – or perhaps, more openness in talking about it?
- There appears to be more familiarity with mediation services among this respondent group compared to responses from the 2013 Study.
- While most respondents continue to be over 50, we saw a rise in respondents who are 30-40 compared to earlier data sets.
What tips and advice do SRLs have for others?
What is most noticeable to me in this new group of respondents is a change in the tone and sophistication of the qualitative data the Intake Form collects.
At the end of the form, SRLs are invited to write about their personal experiences, and many wrote detailed and sometimes poignant narratives.
What really struck me was the difference in the way many respondents this time answered the perennial question that we have asked since 2011: What are Your Tips for Other SRLs?
The change I am observing is not quantifiable, of course. But having read hundreds and hundreds of answers to this question – sometimes contemporaneous notes from interviews or focus groups, sometimes reading from emails, and from collating the answers provided in our self-complete Intake Form from 2014 onwards – I see a significant and potentially important shift from the early days when “I don’t know – just don’t do it” was a common answer.
- SRLs are now far more direct and realistic about what is required in order to self-represent. Their advice to other SRLs begins with “know what you are getting yourself into here – and it is much worse (more stressful, difficult, overwhelming, complex) than you can possibly anticipate.”
- SRLs are offering others practical, accurate and important tips on how to manage the legal process. The advice that SRLs offer others on how to navigate court procedures – including tips on how to conduct legal research (and its importance), how to complete court forms, useful websites – are far more substantive and detailed now than they were when I first began asking this question in 2011. For example, many describe the importance of keeping to the facts and staying away from emotionally charged statements in legal documents (for example, “when preparing court documents, make it simple as much as possible and relevant to the matter.”)
- We are seeing a lot more detailed advice offered now on where to turn for help. These include suggestions about how best to use the limited time of duty counsel, asking judicial officers and law clerks for explanations and assistance (“do not be afraid to let them know that you are nervous…”), recommendations for particular agencies offering free legal assistance, and the possibility of using limited scope assistance (“unbundling”: see the NSRLP National Database which includes lawyers offering unbundling and legal coaching). One SRL points out that “…even a rookie (lawyer) will have a wealth of knowledge you don’t have.”
- Finally, there is what I personally find to be an astonishing level of calm, measured, self-awareness in the ways in which SRLs advise others on how to manage the psychological and emotional impact of self-representation. Some recommend finding a therapist to work with throughout the process (and suggest free services). Many more offer sage advice that emphasizes the need to stay focused on the goal, consider settlement if possible, and avoid escalation with the other side, and avoid being distracted by hurtful but irrelevant allegations. The bottom line, as one SRL puts it, is “(D)on’t forget the rest of your life. You will burn out otherwise.”
This is a manifestation of a classic phase or stage in the process of change – a higher-order complexity that emerges from chaos and disorder.
I think that this data tells us that we are seeing the emergence of a troop of weary but battle-tested SRLs who are ready now to tell others what they have learned – and who are more than ready to be part of future systemic change. We in the legal community ignore and under-estimate their tenacity at our peril.
“It’s the understanding that only when you go thru (sic) something…are you truly able to understand and support…. I want to be part of changing this system, so that people can protect their rights in this wonderful country.”