Video helps those who can't afford a lawyer

Mar 04, 2008 04:30 AM

Legal Affairs Reporter

At a time when thousands of Canadians are becoming legal do-it-yourselfers, information on how to perform in court is surprisingly scarce.

A groundbreaking video shows self-represented litigants everything from presenting an expert witness to conducting themselves in the intimidating setting of a trial.

Yet the video is virtually unknown in Ontario.

"Remember to stand whenever you address the court," host and lawyer Doug McLeod tells viewers, acknowledging that being your own lawyer can be frightening.

Set in a real courtroom, the 25-minute video features actors as plaintiffs and defendants in a variety of civil cases, including wrongful dismissal and breach of contract claims, before Judge Brian Scott of the Alberta Provincial Court.

The video, produced by the Alberta branch of the Canadian Bar Association, may not be a substitute for law school, but it's miles ahead of Perry Mason reruns in explaining what evidence to use, what to avoid and how to address the judge.

In a sweeping report for Ontario last fall, former Associate Chief Justice Coulter Osborne said self-represented litigants deserve basic advice and information about how the civil justice system works and recommended a committee determine how to deliver better services.

He also recommended the committee build a demographic profile of unrepresented litigants, to better understand their needs.

So far, none of that has happened.

While some courthouses offer help filling out forms and the attorney general's website has guides on the trial process, there appears to be no overall strategy.

Last fall a non-profit agency, Pro Bono Law Ontario, opened a help centre for litigants at 393 University Ave. But litigants interviewed by the Star say they're confused by a system designed for lawyers.

"I think it's regrettable, particularly with the problems that exist in being able to afford a trial, that we have a system that isn't user-friendly or 'self-rep' friendly,'" Martha McCarthy, a Toronto family law lawyer, said recently.

Osborne's mandate encompassed only the civil justice system; he wasn't permitted to look at Ontario's family courts, where 90,000 new cases are started every year. Court administrators estimate up to half of all litigants are without lawyers at the time of filing their initial papers.

Christine Strobele, a product manager for a drug company, started out with a lawyer in her divorce case. But after spending $75,000 on legal fees, she ran out of money and ended up representing herself at an eight-day trial in Milton in 2005.

"There should almost be a 'Dummies' book for going to court, some kind of guidebook like 'Self-Representation 101,' " she said in an interview. Strobele didn't know, for example, that she was supposed to stand when the judge spoke to her.

"The ladies in the court, the court reporter and (clerk), they were sweet to me," she said, recalling they made "hand movements for me to stand up."

Strobele said she also didn't realize she needed to make three copies of all her documents and she was confounded when the judge explained a real estate appraiser she'd called to testify needed to be qualified as an expert witness. The Alberta video covers all three points.

Copies of the video were distributed free to every public library and courthouse in Alberta, legal clinics and universities in the province, and all provincial bar associations.