Self-representation in B.C. courts on the rise

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

Canadian Bar Association says it’s time to take a look at legal insurance that would charge users a premium to cover future court expenses. (FOTOLIA)

Canadian Bar Association says it’s time to take a look at legal insurance that would charge users a premium to cover future court expenses. (FOTOLIA)

The number of self-represented litigants is on the rise and it would take $50 million to restore B.C.’s legal aid funding to the levels of more than a decade ago, according to the Canadian Bar Association.

B.C. Court of Appeal and B.C. Supreme Court released annual reports late last month with the same finding of year-over-year increases.

Only the Court of Appeal has precise numbers — showing 30% of civil cases and 14% of criminal files have a lawyer-less party. The figures represent increases of 7% and 4%, respectively.

“Family law cases are a particular challenge, where 38% of appeal hearings involve a self-represented litigant,” wrote Chief Justice Robert Bauman.

“These are extremely troubling statistics.”

The Supreme Court says its numbers would be similar.

CBA British Columbia president Dean Crawford told 24 hours on Wednesday that those without a lawyer are increasingly relying on self-help tools such as guides or going to one of the province’s three Justice Access Centres for help.

In other cases, lawyers have provided services pro bono. The CBA has a line where it charges $25 for a half-hour consult with a lawyer, he said, but fees are often waived.

“I am concerned that the efforts of many in the justice system — whether it’s lawyer or other legal service providers — are enabling government to continue to fund the justice system at current levels,” Crawford said.

“But my view is not unanimous.”

Legal aid funding currently sits at approximately $77 million, he said.

The situation is leading to problems, particularly for those involved in child-custody and tenancy-landlord disputes, and workers’ compensation claims, Crawford said.

“It's challenging for self-represented litigants to put their best case forward,” he said. “If you're not legally trained, you don't know what's admissible and what's not. There's a body of case law in any subject area called common law. Unless you're legally trained, it's difficult if not impossible.”

Now, there are discussions of whether “legal insurance” could help.

“If you were, you know, paying $20 or $30 a month or whatever the premium is,” Crawford said.

“You may not need a lawyer for seven years until you lose your job — it sure would be good to have at that time.”

He said use of legal insurance has picked up in Quebec, but is slow in spreading to other provinces.

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said in a statement the province is “looking at innovative solutions to take cases out of courts.”

“The Family Law Act encourages out-of-court dispute resolution and the Civil Resolution Tribunal, which is designed for use by non-lawyers, will provide online dispute resolution for strata and small claims cases,” she said.

The B.C. Law Society said it formed a task force last week to find a “regulatory framework” to allow non-lawyers to provide legal services.

Articled students have been allowed to provide some legal services since 2011. And last year, the role of paralegals was broadened to allow them to make some court appearances in family court.




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