Online family law course popular with self-litigants


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Trying to navigate the justice system without legal representation can be a stressful, traumatic experience.

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For those in the midst of divorce or a custody battle, the emotional turmoil can be overwhelming.

“I can’t afford a lawyer,” said Kim, who lives in British Columbia and has been trying to finalize a divorce and a custody agreement for five years. “We were a $300,000 a year family. Now, five years later, I’m on disability and I’m $200,000 in debt. I have no money. I basically used up all my money.”

Kim, who didn’t use her real name to protect the identity of her children, has found some hope and comfort from an online Windsor-based pilot program that provides self-represented litigants the tools to help them navigate the justice system on their own .

It’s empowered me just by giving me the basic structure of the system

The National Self-Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP) was founded by University of Windsor law professor Julie Macfarlane and located within the faculty. With funding from the Department of Justice, the NSRLP launched the School for Family Litigants, a free 12-week pilot program in January.

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Dayna Cornwall, project manager of a the University of Windsor's National Self-Represented Litigants Project is shown on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Dayna Cornwall, project manager of a the University of Windsor’s National Self-Represented Litigants Project is shown on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Project manager Dayna Cornwall said self-represented litigants are a “huge, huge issue within the justice system. The biggest proportion of self-represented litigants are in family law. We see that as the greatest area of ​​need.”
Cornwall said sometimes self-represented litigants make up 50 per cent of the cases in family law, and in busy courtrooms in large centers like Toronto, that can reach 80 per cent.

“It’s very eye opening,” Cornwall said. “The biggest reason is they can’t afford a lawyer and they muddle the process because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

When the NSRLP opened registration last December, all 40 spots were snapped up within two hours from people literally living across Canada.

“I was taken back,” Cornwall said. “I knew we wouldn’t have any trouble filling those spots but I thought maybe in a couple of weeks we’d be full.”

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Kim discovered the program through a Facebook group.

“It’s empowered me just by giving me the basic structure of the system,” Kim said. “With family law, I didn’t even understand the small details like what is filing an application? They give you the basics of an application and how to read legal documents. When you’re in this situation, just to ask a lawyer a question is $80.”

Participants learn about researching case law, building a good case, creating affidavits, presenting evidence, navigating a settlement conference and getting ready for trial. They learn important courtroom decorum such as when to stand and how to address a judge.

Cornwall said there’s also a segment on managing emotions and self-care.

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“It can be a traumatic process to navigate the system,” she said. “It’s something you have no training for and you have no distance from it because it’s your case, it’s your children and it’s extremely stressful for people.”

Sessions are led by NSRLP staff and a variety of family law experts including judges, lawyers, mediators and former self-reps. Each session ends with a panel of two to three experts answering questions from the students.

“This is the first course of its kind, geared to the public and to self-reps,” Cornwall said. “Hopefully we can find some way to continue it because there’s obviously demand for it.”

The current grant allows NSRLP to run the course one more time. The pilot course wraps up next month and Cornwall said the group will evaluate feedback and tweak the program before offering it again next fall.

There are tools and resources available on the NSRLP website at representingyourselfcanada.com.

NSRLP is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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