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The Value of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project

I recently announced my intention to step aside as the Director of the NSRLP at the end of 2020. The primary reason is my health (I have cancer). I intend to spend the next year fundraising, to ensure the longevity and stability of the NSRLP as a permanent not-for-profit organization. This blog reflects our thinking about the core work of the NSRLP as we embark on an effort to secure its future – Julie Macfarlane

Why does there need to be a permanent national organization interacting directly with both the public and justice system professionals?

The only way the justice system can realistically adapt to changes in public culture and expectations around disputing will be to include the users of the justice system in each step of analysis and redesign. NSRLP has been promoting the inclusion of members of the public with experience in the justice system since its inception; collaboration between users and system experts is a key part of our mandate, which we work to put into effect every day.

We have been able to add SRLs to policy discussions, beta testing for new resources, and conference panels. On one memorable occasion, a dozen BC SRLs participated in the National Action Committee on A2J’s annual meeting. NSRLP has hosted and facilitated two remarkable stakeholder dialogues that brought together judges, lawyers, legal aid plan managers, paralegals, and SRLs in face-to-face discussions on how to improve access to justice for those who have been forced to represent themselves. One of the greatest challenges NSRLP has faced, and still faces, is trepidation among the legal profession over working with those whom they call “non-lawyers” (have you ever heard of a “non-dentist”? A “non-engineer”? A “non-librarian”?). Yet each time we bring SRLs and justice professionals together to collaborate, everyone is energized by the experience.

No other organization in North America brings SRLs and justice professionals together in this way. (Our friends at the US Self-Represented Litigation Network currently network among professionals only, but are talking with us about how to move towards collaboration with the public.)

NSRLP has a unique template and a record of success in bringing together users and experts, recognizing that there are many people both inside and outside the justice system who feel passionately about systemic problems that result in a chronic lack of affordable justice for Canadians.

There are many questions we have to answer together

  • Why is the justice system failing so many people? The justice system is not working for most people. Legal services are too expensive, lawyers too often come across as bossy and condescending, and the administration of the courts still has a Byzantine feel, despite sincere (but all too piecemeal) efforts to make things better.
  • Is the formal justice system the place Canadians turn to when they have a dispute? In each successive study we have published since 2013, the percent of respondents who were over 50 has increased. This suggests that younger people are dealing with their disputes outside of the formal justice system. Where are younger people resolving their disputes? How many couples have given up on bothering to formally separate or get divorced because of the cost and hassle?
  • What types of assistance are users looking for? We are gradually widening and deepening our understanding of the services contemporary “savvy shoppers” need and want. For example, what legal services do the large group NSRLP calls “the primarily self-represented” prefer to spend their (limited) available funds on?
  • How do the consumers of legal services think about the “value” of legal services in the Internet age? Google has had a seismic impact on consumer access to knowledge, and changed the power balance in client relationships with legal and other professionals. How has that changed the attitudes of consumers and their capacity to act for themselves? And how can lawyers provide their expertise in a way that consumers value and want?

Trust must be rebuilt between the public and the justice system, trust in both its institutions and service providers. Whether you are a big city brand, a small town sole practice, or a courthouse, public trust is all important

NSRLP provides a bridge between the public and the justice system, committed to convening and facilitating necessary conversations that can address the critical challenges in providing access to justice.

We need to grow trust, and a trusted intermediary can help. NSRLP has been and will continue to be a trusted intermediary.

NSRLP’s research arm

Another NSRLP mandate is ongoing research on the SRL phenomenon. Our unique connection to SRLs enables us to continue to collect and publish data on the demographics, challenges, and motivations of SRLs across Canada in family and civil courts via our Intake Reports (a new Report is due out ….hopefully we can add URL here before publication). Policy-makers need access to empirical research data which NSRLP is uniquely well positioned to provide. We are also working to complete a comprehensive database of jurisprudence that systematically analyzes how the family and civil courts are responding to the challenge of SRLs, in relation to costs, accommodations, procedural fairness, and vexatiousness. All this research, which is constantly updated, is free and downloadable from the NSRLP website. But we need financial support to continue the demanding and time-consuming work of gathering data and publishing research reports.

 Help us help you

NSRLP’s collection of SRL “Primers” (recognized in the recent Clawbie awards) are about to be relaunched in a brand-new, more accessible format (including a focus on plain language and more engaging, user-friendly aesthetics). They are already a wonderful, widely used resource, and they are going to be even better thanks to the efforts of our plain language editor and graphic designer.

The Primers are used all over Canada (and in some parts of the US) by SRLs, court services staff, pro bono organizations assisting SRLs, and by individual lawyers and clinics. They aim to help SRLs to be more functional, both procedurally and psychologically – they are not a substitute for a lawyer, but they are informative and reliable, and provide a starting point and referral to other information and services. They are also free, and often all that an SRL has to prepare them to deal with the practical challenges or self-representation. We know that judges appreciate SRLs coming better prepared and with clearer expectations; we also offer information and guidance on how to work with a lawyer on the other side, stressing the importance of that working relationship. We help people without legal training to read a case report and research case law using CanLII. And all our Primers are “road tested” by SRLs before publication.

Public legal education has never been more important, and it must co-exist peacefully with affordable legal services. Resource development, the third of NSRLP’s mandates, has provided us with unique experience in creating materials for the public, responding to areas of need that they indicate to us (for example, how to access a transcript, how to swear an affidavit), and above all, ensuring reliable legal information and procedural assistance.

We need a permanent NSRLP in Canada. Please help us get there. At our current staffing (and we work crazy long days!), we need just $250,000 in core funding per year – yes, we are lean and great value for money. Our target in 2020 is to raise a million dollars to secure the stability of NSRLP going forward.

We are reaching out to Canadians across the nation. We are in need of financial support through donations, visibility support through follows and shares of NSRLP social media accounts and web content, suggestions for potential partnerships to help our organization grow and flourish, and high-profile “NSRLP Champions” who can speak up about our value. If you would like to help, please email representingyourself@gmail.com. Thank you for your support!

Comments

  1. I think what is insufficiently realized Julie is just how prescient your analysis was in ‘The New Lawyer: How Clients Are Transforming the Practice of Law.’ As I learned observing financial markets, no matter how strong or established a business, industry, or even country is, it can’t escape broader market forces. Ultimately, they are all very small fish in a very big pond.

    There are many converging factors driving the new economy and the new millennium that are affecting the legal industry. It is my belief that the self-represented litigant (SRL) will become a relic of the past (probably sooner than we think, but not as soon as we would hope), and be replaced by new affordable partnership created by exactly the powerful broader convergences outlined in your book. I once heard a wise observation that change occurs much slower than you expect, but once it begins, it happens much faster than you thought possible.

    Thanks for your indefatigable determination and leadership. Change is happening.

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