Here at the National Self-Represented Litigants Project, we have spent the past 10 years trying (along with our other research and advocacy work) to provide support and information to litigants who find themselves self-representing in the family and civil justice systems. We have, among other efforts, published a growing collection of “Primers” (plain language guides) for self-represented litigants (SRLs), compiled a list of other organizations and resources that might be helpful to them, and maintained a Directory of lawyers (and other legal service providers) who offer lower-cost and alternative options such as unbundling and coaching. But for a long time now we have wished to be able to offer a systematic program that brings all this and more into one accessible place for SRLs: a “school” which would give them some basic tools, information, and strategies for navigating the system on their own. This year, this goal has come to fruition with our “School for Family Litigants” pilot initiative, thanks to generous funding from the Federal Department of Justice (part of their Canadian Family Justice Fund grant program).
The first program of its kind
We are proud to say that this is the first-ever such initiative in Canada, and we have been encouraged by its reception, by both SRLs and legal system professionals. More on this later.
To begin, we developed a curriculum based on our Primers series, distilling this information into a crash-course on the family law system for the lay person. Topics covered include lessons on: the basics of precedent and legal terminology; conducting research using CanLII, making sense of case law and legislation, and applying them to your matter; understanding and using evidence and affidavits; learning about case management and settlement conferences; knowing how to apply for accommodations if you need them; understanding and navigating various settlement processes; learning about options for legal services and supports (such as limited scope retainers and McKenzie Friends); preparing for and going to trial; and ending a matter and moving on.
We organized this curriculum into a 12-week program, with 1.5 hour sessions to be run once a week; each session consists of a roughly 45-minute lecture by a guest speaker, followed by a Q&A panel featuring the speaker and 2-3 other experts who provide their tips and strategies to the class, and answer informational questions directly from the students. (We have made it clear throughout this program that we are not able to offer legal advice, or speak to the specifics of individual cases.) We invited our speakers and panelists based on their expertise on each week’s topics, and ended up with a roster of volunteers which includes judges, lawyers, academics, librarians, coaches, paralegals, mediators, and former SRLs. The course reading list consists of our Primers, plus some additional resources and supplemental materials suggested by our guests.
An important part of the course is the communal and interactional element – students are encouraged to engage in the live sessions (via Zoom) with the guest lecturers and panelists, and with each other via Facebook groups we set up for each cohort. For this reason, we decided to cap the number of students at 40, to keep administration manageable for ourselves, and to foster a sense of supportive community.
At the conclusion of the course, students are provided with a certificate of completion, which we encourage them to keep with their case materials, and possibly use as proof of their commitment to navigating the system the best they possibly can if they encounter distrust or dismissive attitudes from the legal system.
Overwhelming eagerness and enthusiasm
Having developed our program, we prepared to launch the first run of the School in early 2022. In the late fall of 2021 we began to publicize the School, with registration (via Eventbrite) set to open on the 1st of December. We used NSRLP’s social media platforms, website, and newsletter, with the intention that we would make use of paid advertising if necessary. Quite a lot of interest was garnered very quickly, both from our SRL followers and from other access to justice organizations and legal professionals. We anticipated we would have no trouble filling the class, but when registration opened on December 1st, we were overwhelmed to find that all spots were filled in 2 hours. Over the following weeks we fielded many messages from SRLs who had not been able to register in time desperate to be included. Needless to say, we never found it necessary to use paid advertising to market the course.
The first run of the course turned out to be a positive experience for all concerned. Our lecturers and panelists were happy to share their knowledge and experience, as many of them had witnessed firsthand the struggles that SRLs face when representing themselves. But it was the messages and gratitude from the SRL students themselves that was most important. Reflections from the feedback survey we distributed at the conclusion of the course highlight some of the beneficial aspects for SRLs: they spoke of the usefulness of the content, and the benefit of receiving it in a cohesive and contextual manner (as opposed to the piecemeal way SRLs tend to find legal information when thrown in to a matter); they appreciated hearing directly from lawyers, judges and other SRLs, and spoke of how this “humanized” the system for them; they were grateful for the strategic tips the guests offered them, glad to take away practical information they could implement immediately.
Most of all, while the students expressed thanks for the practical and strategic information provided, they also frequently expressed deep gratitude for having their experiences validated (both by legal professionals and by other SRLs), the acknowledgement of the difficulty of their tasks as SRLs, and the sense that they are not alone. These themes were expressed during live sessions, in messages throughout the running of the course, and in the formal feedback survey.
Hopes for the future
This fall, we have been running the program for a second time (even with spots increased to 50, registration filled up in under 2 hours in August), and although we have yet to distribute our feedback survey to this cohort, the informal feedback coming in sounds very similar.
With our funding from the Department of Justice set to conclude, we are reflecting on how we will continue this work in the future. Given the enthusiasm we have encountered from legal professionals (writing and speaking about this project over the past year has garnered a great deal of interest and support every time), and the obvious demand from self-represented litigants themselves for this kind of programming, we are encouraged to pursue more funding opportunities for this project. Our further hope is to develop the program into a format that is both more accessible by a wider number of SRLs, and more sustainable for us. Not least among our schemes for the future of this work is the hope that the course can be offered in various regions through partnerships with other organizations, which would allow it to be adapted in more jurisdiction-specific ways. (In the current pilot program, as with all our national resources for SRLs, we have had to keep our information generic enough to be appropriate for litigants across the country – and indeed, the students of both cohorts so far have hailed from locations coast to coast.)
So, we very much welcome interest from other organizations looking to collaborate on regional versions of the course, and individuals interested in getting involved as speakers or panelists. Feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com. We look forward to a bright future for this program, which so clearly fills a great need.
Written by Dayna Cornwall, NSRLP Project Manager, and Project Lead for the School for Family Litigants