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The Ontario Civil Liberties Association is proud to launch its working group project for the rights and interests of self-represented litigants (SRLs).
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Self-represented and unlawyered litigants represent a large group of litigants in Ontario courts.
The OCLA is committed to advancing the rights and interests of SRLs who, for whatever reason, choose to represent themselves or to be unlawyered.
The Ontario courts are not a level litigation field for unrepresented litigants. The courts do not fairly accommodate citizens who choose to represent themselves, but rather present a palpable and often overt negative bias against the unlawyered plaintiff or defendant.
This is a systemic problem rooted in the closed environment of the legal profession in which lawyers and judges, tied by mutual professional and social relationships, work together to manage ordinary citizens.
Ontario is a backward jurisdiction in terms of treating SRLs, and its courts are both refractory and biased against SRLs. Rather than provide needed resources to SRLs, such as the funded drop-in centers of British Colombia, Ontario’s focus is one of “managing the problem of SRLs” via such methods as: “educating judges”, “developing practice guidelines”, “steering unlawyered litigants towards representation”, “steering self-represented litigants toward mediation”, excessive interventional use of “case management” powers, and “putting more pamphlets on-line”.
The problem for SRLs is exacerbated by the fact that Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure (the rules of the court) need not be followed by judges who have the power to modify any rule “to secure the just, most expeditious and least expensive determination of every civil proceeding on its merits”. In practice, this has two major negative consequences for SRLs:
(i) The SRL cannot depend on what appear to be set procedural rules, but rather can find himself/herself before unforeseen circumstances imposed at the last minute; and
(ii) Given the systemic bias against SRLs, the judicial “rule bending” is often applied under the unstated assumption that the SRL is being or could otherwise be unreasonable; as the judge is urged on, of course, by opposing counsel.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines every litigant’s right to “equality before and under the law” but this has little meaning in practice in Ontario unless self-represented litigants individually and collectively advance and defend their right for fair treatment in the courts.
Thus, there is a very real need for self-represented litigants (SRLs) to organize in order to advocate for their rights and interests, and to share resources, knowledge, and experience. The OCLA offers a forum for such organization and representation.
The OCLA understands that the rights and interests of SRLs is a political question that necessarily challenges the legal establishment, its statutory structures, and its professional associations. As such, self-represented litigants need a strong and independent voice.
The OCLA wishes to facilitate the development of this voice, to the benefit of both individual self-represented litigants and SRLs as a group. The OCLA proposes regular meetings of Ottawa area unlawyered litigants for the purpose of self-help and advancing common interests. The OCLA can provide logistic support for exercising political and administrative pressures, and is happy to facilitate communications and resource-sharing between litigants.
The OCLA may initiate and oversee a database of complaints by SRLs, for the purpose of identifying problem areas and priorities.
The OCLA’s position is that, whether right or wrong, guilty or innocent, every self-represented litigant has a right to a fair and transparent process.
Further, it is OCLA’s position that, in view of the systemic bias against SRLs, and in view of the intrinsic disadvantages of SRLs within the adversary system of the law, SRLs have a right to reasonable special accommodations, both procedural and in-court.
The OCLA’s position is that no SRL should ever be treated with disrespect by a judge, master, or lawyer, inside or outside the courtroom. This includes such “small” matters as being referred to as “he” or “she” in open court, rather than by proper name and/or title.
The OCLA’s position is that no procedural rule should be altered to the disadvantage of the SRL (as judged by the SRL), without reasonable judicial prior notice.
The OCLA’s position is that judges should consider in detail any SRL’s complaint about the professional conduct of a lawyer involved in the case, and should make corresponding findings, with reasons, in view of alerting the Law Society of Upper Canada, or in view of other appropriate measures or directives.
The OCLA’s position is that no SRL should ever be imposed to argue more than one filed motion or application per day, and that there should be allowed at least four days between motions argued by a given SRL.
The OCLA’s position is that lawyers opposing SRLs should, in giving any advisements, always support their positions with cited relevant rules/directives and/or case law relied on, rather than simply stating the position as a directive or ultimatum without the legal basis.
Lobbying for Resources
The OCLA will advocate for resources to be allocated for helping SRLs to be better SRLs, such as drop-in resource centers for SRLs housed in the courtrooms and equipped with computers, legal databases, small meeting rooms, and so on.
The OCLA will advocate for an Ombudsperson position to be created (possibly affiliated with the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman), to oversee the needs and complaints of SRLs, and to regularly evaluate the extent to which SRL needs are being addressed by the legal system.
Contact OCLA-SLRs Workgroup Coordinator, Denis Rancourt to receive announcements about the Working Group’s activities: firstname.lastname@example.org