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Can Self-Represented Litigants Access Justice? NSRLP’s New Intake Report

Since 2013, the NSRLP has gathered data from self-represented litigants (SRLs) across Canada through our SRL Intake Form. After the publication of Julie Macfarlane’s original study on self-representation in 2013, SRLs wished to continue sharing their stories and experiences with the legal system, so the Intake Form was developed as a means to continue collecting this data, as it was clear there was a significant gap in existing organizations and systems and that SRLs’ contributions and experiences were going unheard. Every 1-2 years the NSRLP analyzes the Intake Form data for the previous period, and writes an updated report based on the ongoing trends and newly developing issues in self-representation in Canada.

Our previous intake reports have been released in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021. We are now excited to announce the release of our latest Intake Report, encompassing data collected from July 1, 2021 to September 30, 2023, comprising responses from 268 self-represented litigants. Following are some highlights from this report.

Demographic Data from SRLs

As observed in previous intake reports, the predominant age group among SRL respondents continues to be individuals aged 50 and above. This statistic reflects the trend that individuals over 40 are more likely to face civil or family law disputes. Consistent over the years, this dataset still has a notable absence of younger respondents. Potential explanations could be that younger people face fewer legal issues, choose to handle legal problems through informal dispute-resolution mechanisms, or end up lumping legal issues. More research is needed to explain and further analyze disparities in age brackets in the self-representation process.

SRLs in the sample continue to be highly educated. Almost 40% of respondents have a university degree, and a further 27% have a college diploma. Despite their educational background, navigating self-representation in legal matters remains difficult for many. SRLs also continue to speak a diversity of languages. While most respondents stated that their first language was English, many other first languages were reported in the sample, including French, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish, Urdu, German, and Polish. However, it should be noted that the Intake Form is currently only available in English. As such, there may be more languages spoken by SRLs that the current data cannot capture, particularly if these litigants use translators or other language services, and many more SRLs navigating the justice system whose first language is not English. The NSRLP feels strongly that this consideration needs to inform the production and delivery of legal information resources going forward.

Barriers to Access to Justice

In line with both Julie Macfarlane’s original study and all subsequent intake reports, the primary barrier cited by respondents was the high cost of lawyers’ fees and the general unaffordability of legal services. They cite this as the primary reason they are self-represented in their legal matter. Similar to previous intake reports, this data suggests that the standards of poverty and income eligibility thresholds used by most provincial Legal Aid organizations are out of date with the current Canadian economic landscape and the income of the average Canadian. Even among respondents who reported earning higher incomes, financial barriers were cited as reasons not to retain a lawyer for the entirety of their cases. To this effect, one respondent wrote: “I slowly was losing my savings and realized my only option was to self-represent.”

An alarming portion of SRLs surveyed also described encountering discrimination based on disability, gender, and race throughout their legal proceedings. Systemic discrimination and racism in the justice system remain significant issues. Combatting these demands greater sensitivity and cultural awareness on the part of judges, lawyers, and other actors within the system.

Disabled Canadians continue to be disproportionately represented within the SRL community. 43% of respondents identified as individuals with cognitive and/or physical impairments. SRLs with disabilities reported encountering additional obstacles during their cases, describing struggles in obtaining accommodations from courts and tribunals, and the overall detrimental impact on their physical and mental well-being of navigating an inaccessible system.

SRL Experiences in the Justice System

The final part of the Intake Form includes an open-ended question prompting SRLs to share their personal experiences and provide advice for others navigating the justice system on their own. Drawing on this open-ended question, a significant portion of each intake report is dedicated to showcasing the firsthand accounts and insights of SRLs in their own words.

Many respondents continue to write about the misperceptions they believe justice system insiders hold about SRLs. Other respondents expressed feeling that the system is stacked against them. One respondent wrote: “I feel like court officials are dismissive of SRLs. I liken this experience to being gaslit, being made to question your perception of reality, being told constantly that you are wrong.” Another respondent described assumptions legal actors made about SRLs: “When I was self-represented and unable to afford a lawyer, judges have assumed that I chose to appear before them self-represented rather than accept the advice of a lawyer.”

Many respondents took the opportunity to address other SRLs, enthusiastic to assist others and advocate for broader reforms within the justice system and its processes. Numerous respondents offered insightful and practical advice to fellow SRLs on how to navigate procedural matters, conduct legal research, and prepare for proceedings. (Examples of this advice can be found in the full Report.)

Imperative User Perspectives

At the NSRLP we’re very grateful for the time respondents take to share their stories and experiences with us every day. We are committed to providing information and resources to support self-represented litigants and to help address the access to justice crisis in our legal system, and this first-hand data informs our work in these regards. The Intake Form is an ongoing and evolving initiative, and we are committed to continuously modifying the Form to respond to changes observed in the legal system and the development of new access to justice issues. In recent iterations we have added questions respecting unbundled legal services and access to mediation. Currently we are in the process of adding questions about SRLs’ use of AI to assist them with their legal matter. We encourage self-represented individuals to continue to share their insights through the Form, and to share with us any feedback on how the Form itself might be improved.

The data from SRLs provides invaluable insights for legal professionals and illuminates the challenges and biases these justice system stakeholders face. As legal actors in the justice system seek to address blind spots and bridge the access to justice gap, it is imperative to actively seek and consider the firsthand perspectives of users.

The full 2021-2023 Self-Represented Litigant Intake Report can be read here.

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Written by Keerthi Chintapalli, NSRLP Law Student Research Assistant

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