Reasonable Doubt: Three things to know if you’re representing yourself

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      The first few days of September, to me, have always signalled a time for a fresh start. During my school days, my “new school supplies” optimism may not have lasted very long once it was time to actually get down to work, but to this day I still feel that for those first weeks in September, I’m going to be more organized than ever and conquer all.

      Trusting that others feel the same way as me about this month of the year, I think it is a good time to reach out to those people representing themselves in their own legal matters, because working on your own legal case can feel a lot like being back in school and preparing for a big test or researching and writing a paper.

      For the past year, I have been working concertedly with people managing their own legal matters and developing my business to support people to represent themselves. Having done so, I have noticed a few common trends and matters that I need to explain.

      Working on your own legal case could be anything from negotiating and drafting an agreement to running your own trial in the B.C. Supreme Court. If you’re considering doing anything that may resemble working on your own legal matter, consider these following three things.

      1. Working on your own legal case does not mean tricking someone or outsmarting them. There are no good long-term quick fixes around a big legal issue. You need to put in the effort and time to create something good.

      If you’re negotiating an agreement, this means it’s important to be transparent. Withholding information or being vague on the terms of your agreement means that you may not have reached an agreement at all or, worse yet, that your agreement will be attacked later because you failed to share an important piece of information.

      Negotiating an agreement needs to be built on trust, even if there is very little of that between the parties.

      2. If the other party has breached an agreement or a court order (other than a criminal court order), it is up to you to hold them accountable.

      There is no magical solution to holding someone accountable for breaching an agreement or an order; the agreement/court order police do not jump in and force the person to comply with their agreement or order. What, then, is the point of an agreement or court order? Nothing, if the buck does not stop with you.

      If the other party breaches your agreement or court order and it’s important to you, you need to take steps to put your matter in court and ask that your court order or agreement be enforced. The court has the power to issue fines and penalties and other remedies to force the other person to comply with an agreement or an order, but you must push the matter forward and make the request of the court. There is no one else to do it for you.

      3. The court (and, more generally, the law) is not a machine into which you can plug certain information and always get the same result.

      You may be surprised to find that just because you are clearly right and the other party is clearly wrong, when you tell them this (likely very lovingly), they don’t always agree with you and do what you want.

      So, then you decide it’s time to go to court. You may have facts one and two, above, but just because you put those into a court application, you won’t necessarily get number three. Everyone’s case looks amazing to them in their head, and even if it actually is an amazing case, it doesn’t mean you won’t have to fight for the result you want.

      The court system is an adversarial place. When lawyers talk about an adversarial system, they are usually referring to the arguments being made in the courtroom. For a self-represented litigant just learning to navigate the system, you may find that the adversity starts before you get to the courtroom. It may be a struggle just to file your court documents or schedule a hearing.

      Once you put your application on paper, the other side is given the opportunity to argue against you. The other side has just as much right to be heard as you do. Keep in mind, their case may sound just as amazing to them in their own head as yours does in your head. Most importantly, there is never any certainty of result when your matter is in court.

      Laurel Dietz practises family law and criminal defence with Dogwood Law Corporation in Victoria, B.C. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. She can be followed on Twitter at You can send your questions for the column to its writers at