Working With, Not Against the Public: A New Year Manifesto for the NSRLP

Working With, Not Against the Public: A New Year Manifesto for the NSRLP

As 2016 drew to a close, we heard a lot of angst and analysis about the seismic events of the year. And yes – this was going on in my household too.

I had looked on in disbelief as my home country voted in June to leave the European Union – falling prey to deeply rooted fears of immigrants and apparent nostalgia for the days of Empire. Then in November we watched as the U.S. – where I have family, and a home – elected Donald Trump as President in a roar of “anti-elitism”.

I have been thinking a lot about what the various analyses of these developments may mean for our work at NSRLP as we try to bring forward the voices of the public in Access to Justice reform.

“Anti-elitism” and the work of the NSRLP

Much has been made of the pushback among those who used their vote for Brexit and Trump as a vote against “elitism”, characterised as those with power, education and privilege.

The premise of “anti-elitism” seems to be twofold: that those with special knowledge and experience are unable to communicate meaningfully with the public; and that the public is averse to much reading, has a vocabulary of 100 words or less, an attention span of seconds for any “policy” or “plan”, and is interested only in being entertained, in politics as theatre, and not in making informed decisions.

Certainly many self-represented litigants feel that they are pushing back against elitism – specifically against the many cultural barriers erected by those used to being “in charge” in these spaces, and operating without the unwelcome intrusion of the public. And while we are seeing more and more effective – often technology-aided – work on meaningful public legal education, there is an enormous amount of work still to be done to make the legal system welcoming and accessible instead of hostile and exclusionary.

But the other part of the “anti-elitism” analysis is simply irreconcilable with what we have learned at NSRLP for the last four years from working with thousands of self-represented litigants.  We know that members of the public who find themselves representing themselves care a great deal about educating themselves on how to use the legal system, are in many cases very capable learners, and are driven by a lot more than the “entertainment” of self-representation. This is not a game for them – it is serious.

Its extraordinarily hard to navigate a complex and arcane legal system, especially when your own vested interests are at stake – but ordinary people from a range of educational backgrounds do it every day. They do so by excavating all the information, knowledge and experience they possibly can from every available source.

So I don’t accept the infantilization of the public or the anti-intellectualism that the “revolution against elitism” explanation trots out. Public voices are so much more intelligent, motivated and deserving of respect than this. Our NSRLP Resources for SRLs are aimed at an intelligent, resilient, resourceful population.

When people are left with no alternative but to take care of themselves, they are far more capable than we dare imagine. I have learned this over and over at NSRLP, and it has given me so much respect for those who don a cloak of disadvantage (no legal training) and wear it with pride. 

Looking Forward: 2017 at NSRLP

An issue that has come to the fore at NSRLP over the past few months is the pushback against self-represented litigants – whose real struggles are now more widely recognized than ever before. This pushback comes from parts of a legal establishment who still desperately hope that everything is going to “go back to normal”.

This is evident in the fixation of some of our court and provincial rules committees on how to penalize self-represented litigants and limit their participation in the courts – by imposing punitive costs awards against them, making appeals more difficult (for example, Rule 1.2 (2) introduced in 2014 in Alberta);

written summary judgment procedures to dismiss their cases (Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure, RRO 1990, Reg 194, rule 2.1); and a tranche of new procedures to remove them from the courts by characterising them as “vexatious litigants” (for example, “Federal judges take steps to curb nuisance lawsuits”).

At NSRLP we have and shall continue to acknowledge over and over that yes, a few litigants are mischievously misusing the court process. But the analysis that SRLs should be “beaten back” by a defensive legal establishment contains three major errors that require recognition and correction. We shall be working on addressing these this coming year, via a number of research and awareness projects.

Insider Errors

  1. The numbers. A focus on bizarre groups like the “freeman on the land” (a US originated phenomenon) distorts the real picture. Litigants whose goal it is to sow chaos and challenge the legitimacy and authority of the courts are a tiny fraction of those who come as SRLs (even in Alberta, where they are most evident). While their adventures make the best tabloid fodder as ‘celebrity SRLs” (for example, “Vexatious litigant continues to have her days in court”), their antics distort the real picture. There is a continuing problem of conflation between genuinely marginal SRLs and ordinary people stumbling through the courts.
  1. The assumption of intentionality. Again and again, we encounter the assumption that SRLs are intentionally abusing the court system. But intentionality implies control – and SRLs rarely feel in control. A SRL who names multiple defendants is frequently regarded by system insiders as vengeful and out-of-control – but some SRLs just believe (perhaps having watched too many TV dramas) that this is simply the best thing to do to protect their interests in an uneven contest. Similarly, self-represented parties who file long and (to a legal eye) rambling and repetitive briefs are not deliberately trying to waste court time – the explanation is far simpler. They are looking up as many different arguments as they can amass from a range of sources online.
  1. Insider evaluations of the behaviour of self-represented litigants are usually made through the prism of expertise. The reasonable justification of ensuring the efficiency of the courts (the Hyrniak [2014] 1 S.C.R. 87 principle) can be used to explain almost any rule or action that reduces the visibility of SRLs. The risk here is that imposing an efficiency model developed without public input will find almost every SRL wanting.  It’s not that efficiency is a bad principle, of course – the problem is how we understand and implement it. If the required “efficiency” it is only attainable in practice by an elite with extensive education in law and procedure, that is a problem.

The combined effect of these forces is to create a sort of “welfare queen” model of SRLs, in which the very worst characteristics of the most marginal are conflated with ordinary SRLs trying to navigate the system as best they can without affordable legal assistance (another of our major projects this year will focus on developing a mainstream model of affordable legal coaching, with the formidable Nikki Gershbain at the helm).

Over the last four years, NSRLP has made some progress in exposing the inaccuracy of the old, tired stereotype of SRLs as crazy wannabe lawyers. A major goal for 2017 is to highlight – through case law research, case studies, and an upcoming podcast series – the real stories of SRLs. These demonstrate the continuing misperceptions and errors about intentionally bad SRL behaviour that are consuming time and energy needed for real Access to Justice reforms.

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Comments (5)

  • Twechar

    Great article Julie! It sums up exactly what’s happening, clumping or conflating the serious SRL with the “vexatious” SRL is just plain wrong! It would be like the public conflating Robin Camp Et Al with all the good judges, that wouldn’t be fair either!

    January 9, 2017 at 12:50 pm
  • Judy Gayton

    First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
    Mahatma Gandhi

    Thank you for this insightful commentary on what may well be the single most important problem facing humanity today Julie. I say this because the most powerful institution a society has, to help us create a world that lives up to its own purported values, is our justice system.

    In order to understand why we are failing to reach that vision and potentially, how to turn those failures around, it is critical to understand how it became acceptable to abuse” unfit” infirmed marginalized people, as “useless eaters”, a waste of state resources and unworthy of life in the first place.

    Award winning science journalist Robert Whittaker, explains in simple detail the history of the ‘science” of eugenics that lead directly to the socially sanctioned, systemic abuse witnessed in our court rooms to this day. I trust you will find it useful in your work.
    God’s Speed
    Eugenics Psychiatry – DVD

    January 9, 2017 at 11:17 pm
  • Chris Budgell

    The creation of the NSRLP followed the completion of a report based on direct input from SRLs, of whom I was one. I was very surprised to hear that members of the legal establishment claim that SRLs are wannabe lawyers. Perhaps what lies behind that is fear of the prospect of a more informed and engaged citizenry.

    The insight I’ve gained is partly the result of pursuing litigation that is not typical of what SRLs pursue. Thanks to CANLII most of the formal results of my train of litigation can be found with this link: . My first foray into court was a judicial review challenging two decisions dismissing a complaint I took to the BC Labour Relations Board. I put a great deal of effort into preparing for that case, including purchasing the sort of text books even most lawyers would not choose to read.

    The two day hearing was followed, about seven weeks later, by a judgment in which I had (nominally at least) prevailed. I soon heard from one source that the judgment was causing quite a stir within the trade union community. But my focus at that point was on dealing with the practical result – that the matter was now back in the hands of the Labour Board. What I had not foreseen was that in addition to contending with a very challenging process at the Board I was also going to have to prepare for the appeal for which the union was the moving party. So I was dealing with three parties in two forums simultaneously.

    Knowing then what I know now, I would not have gone into that hearing like the doomed supplicant I actually was. One of the three judges who were hearing the appeal wrote the judgment with the other two concurring. I subsequently discovered a speech that judge had given to an annual meeting of the BC Council of Administrative Tribunals. The title was “Know Thyself: Some Thoughts About Impartiality of Administrative Decision-makers From an Interested Observer.” I don’t expect to find a another speech or article anywhere that more graphically demonstrates the culture that results in the almost absolute “deference” the Canadian judiciary shows towards the tribunal quasi-judiciary.

    For another judicial review I recently commenced, I have in mind including that speech in the Book of Authorities and contrasting it with the decision the Chair of the LRB wrote in response to my courtroom success. In fact what he wrote –$2003.pdf – is a policy statement disguised as a decision that has now been cited over 600 times – – in dismissing complaints of the type I was pursuing. The Chair was able to avoid referring to my case by arbitrarily selecting another complaint as the vehicle for this policy statement.

    I didn’t have time to invest in following the recent U.S. election. Based on what I did read of Canadian media commentary I presumed that Hillary Clinton would win that election – probably by a considerable margin. However I had already decided that if I get in front of a judge again I would comment on the Trump phenomenon. That, I would suggest, is indicative of what happens when privileged elites are committed to ensuring the public is uninformed (or misinformed) and disenfranchised.

    January 10, 2017 at 2:11 pm
  • Robert Harrison

    This conversation is much like what is happening in the US right now. Arguing about how Trump is acting, is like arguing how SRL’s are not treated fairly. The problem is there is an agenda that is controlled by those who have the most to lose if the system is changed. It’s not the unfairness of how SRL’s are being treated, it’s the unfairness of how the Courts are in charge of deciding how SRL’s are treated. This “site” provides this forum, but does nothing to address the real problem, lack of accountability. This site sits back and smiles at all the skirmishing that SRL’s go through and what do they have at the end? They have a snapshot of exactly where SRL’s are in the fight against corruption. Does that help SRL’s? No. Does it help the fight against SRL’s? Yes. I have been in litigation against the Province of BC for ten years. I learned that a Pro-Bono lawyer was working for the Province when he made an unsolicited offer of free legal services. The lawyer concealed the conflict of interest. If I had known of the substantial business relationship the lawyer had with the Province, I would never have accepted the offer. Yet, the BC Court of Appeal just dismissed my lawsuit before I was allowed to conduct discovery on the lawyer. Does anyone care? You should, because this is how the courts have the freedom to do whatever they want despite clear evidence, and this site will do nothing to address the main problem of what SRL’s face – the money and power do not want SRL’s to succeed in court. If that did happen, imagine the fear that would ripple through the industry if all the customers thought they could be an SRL? It’s the same old, same old story. Follow the money, honey. If this site was actually doing anything to help SRL’s, it would conduct a proper assault on the legal system to ensure that any SRL treated unfairly, would be reviewed by a civilian panel to ensure impartiality. Court judgments and legislation is expected to be in plain english, and there is no reason why a panel could not decide if an SRL was treated fairly. If the SRL believed in their story, they could offer to pay for the panel, if necessary. The whole Canadian legal system is a joke and this site, NSRLP is part of the problem.

    February 1, 2017 at 1:01 pm
    • Twechar

      You raise some very good points Robert but as long as judicial misconduct, unaccountability and the absence of impartiality is swept under the courtroom rug. Due process or “access to justice”will never be given to SRL’S with or without this site!

      February 2, 2017 at 5:26 pm

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