The Truth Is RawNSRLP
The Ottawa Citizen article about the National Self-Represented Litigants Project (Don Butler, January 01 2013) has drawn many comments to my inbox as well as on our Facebook page and to the newspaper itself. I have to confess that when I first read the headline – “Self-represented litigants ‘treated with contempt’ by many judges, study finds” – my heart jumped into my throat.
Yes, that is just what I am constantly told by self reps. Many in the justice system recognize this reality. But it was, as Sue Rice my Project Co-ordinator aptly put it, “truthful but a little raw.”
I am trying to hold together a coalition of people of good will who are willing to look critically at our justice system and to swallow hard and accept, not resist, the bad news here (and there is a lot of it). I do not want to alienate those among the judiciary and the legal profession who are critical to moving forward towards a better system. At the same time I have a responsibility to be honest and authentic in presenting what I have been told now by hundreds of self reps.
I began to notice an uncanny similarity in the narratives of the self reps very early on in the project. It seemed that whether in British Colombia, Alberta, or, later on, in Ontario – whether you were filed in family court, civil court, small claims, or working on an appeal – whether you were mothers or fathers – whether you are university-educated or grade school educated – whether you live in a big city or in a more remote rural centre – and whatever your personal circumstances, background, political affiliations, values and class – you kept telling me the same thing. The justice system did not welcome you – in fact, it was often downright unpleasant towards you. It did not accept your good faith. It did not even accept that it had to be you who must file the papers, address the court, talk to the other side -and not because this was something you actually wanted to do, but because you could not afford (or continue to afford) legal representation.
The justice system seems to be in denial about the necessity that drives self reps – and instead this is becoming a war on self reps.
Which brings me back to the Citizen headline that exploded across our screens this week. So far I have not read a single message or post that takes issue with the general themes reported in the article. It is as if the time has come to speak the truth, raw as it is.
There are many nuances in the research data not captured by a single newspaper article. There are judges who are doing a sterling job of trying to figure out how to retool their role and function to deal with self reps (and without much in the way of judicial education or support). There is plenty of project data – not mentioned in Don Butler’s article – that demonstrates an urgent need for our learned friends in the legal profession to treat their not-so-learned friends fairly and with respect. Efforts to defeat self reps using strategies of attrition, obfuscation, and blizzards of paperwork, are hardly the dignified behavior of a noble profession.
In the coming months as I analyze the research data and write the reports I shall continue to blog about the study findings. As the debate that this project has precipitated continues to unfold I urge everyone with an interest to hang in there, and to continue to listen to one another, however raw our truths may be.