Reasonable Doubt: Representing yourself in court
Everybody’s doing it, why not you? Well, several reasons. Despite the fact that there is no dearth of information on the Internet to get you started and run your case, it can be really difficult to figure out what is important, what is not, and know if you’re missing anything. The legal process can be long and drawn and out. It can burn you out. The reason lawyers go to law school and spend years really trying to get their careers up and running is in order to learn how to narrow down what is important and how to get the job done properly the first time.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to make a living, especially in this city where the cost of living is so high. Not many people have the funds to hire a lawyer to run their case. I know that if I had to hire a lawyer, I wouldn’t be able to afford one right now. But only having limited funds does not mean legal disaster won’t strike. So what do you do?
If you’re being sued in civil court, ignoring the proceedings will not help you. Default proceedings will inevitably be taken against you and if the judge awards damages against you, you will have to pay up or face debt collection measures that will screw with your credit rating.
If you’re facing criminal charges, ignoring the proceedings won’t work. You’ll end up in jail the minute the police figure it out. Fleeing the jurisdiction (B.C. or Canada) is not a wise idea, either. You always end up wanting to go home in the end and then they nab you! Either that or you’re not bright enough to realize that the country you choose to go to is one of the few with an extradition treaty with Canada (isn’t that right, Mr. Magnotta?).
Family proceedings—well, there is no way to ignore those without suffering devastating consequences.
If someone is taking advantage of you, what do you do? Do you let them walk all over you even though the other person is in the wrong?
No. None of these options are palatable. So you gather your wits about you and you prepare to stand your ground and fight. Statistics and stories such as a recent CBC news story about the lack of success of lay litigants are not helpful.
The only way to deal with legal problems is to take them one step at a time. Seek out help where you can. Accept that it will take a lot of your time and will not be resolved quickly. Use your most impartial friends and family to act as sounding boards to make sure you’re not being too emotional or unreasonable.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Figure out roughly what your legal issue is.
• This may sound really easy, but distilling a dispute down to one sentence requires knowing the facts and the law.
• If you are simply at the fuzzy stage where you feel an injustice has been done to you or the party suing you is wrong, get your facts in order.
2. Marshall your facts.
• Write out in simple language and chronological order all the facts that you think are important to your case.
• Not all facts will be important in the end, but you can come back to the facts later.
• Start thinking about how you’re going to prove each and every one of these facts.
- Through a witness (must be firsthand information).
- Through documents (must be original).
- Through an expert (must be giving an opinion on the particulars of your case).
3. Figure out the applicable law.
• Is there legislation that applies to your case?
• Is there case law that applies to your case?
The answer to both these questions is probably yes. But how do you find it? Rather than turning the information overload that is the Internet, use your local resources. Go to your courthouse library. Consult with the librarians about how to find information relevant to your issue. They can teach you how to search for legislation and case law.
Look for cases where judges explain what is important in cases like yours. Go back to your facts and narrow them down. Focus on the important parts, forget the rest (even if you’re emotionally attached to them).
4. Figure out the appropriate venue to bring your dispute.
• If you are suing someone, it will be up to you to decide where and how to sue them.
• This may mean suing in small claims, B.C. Supreme Court, or the appropriate administrative tribunal (such as the Residential Tenancy Board).
5. Once you know the venue, you need to figure out the rules for proper procedures. You must follow these rules. These rules will be listed somewhere. Talk to the librarian.
These are just rudimentary tips to get you started with your legal action. While you might not be able to pay a lawyer to do the whole thing for you, you may be able to pay for an hour or two of a lawyer’s time. It may be worth it to consult a lawyer to see that you’re not missing anything and that you’re doing it right. Also, consider hiring a lawyer to do only a portion of the litigation, like drafting pleadings, legal research, or a court appearance.
Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. The column’s writers, Laurel Dietz and Nancy Seto, are criminal defence lawyers at Cobb St. Pierre Lewis. You can send your questions for the column to them at email@example.com.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.