Can you afford to go it alone?

Canada’s Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin stated that:

“The Canadian legal system is sometimes said to be open to two groups – the wealthy and corporations at one end of the spectrum, and those charged with serious crimes at the other [through legal aid]… It is obvious that these two groups leave out many Canadians. Hard hit are average middle-class Canadians….Their options are grim: use up the family assets in litigation; become their own lawyers; or give up. (Excerpt from Remarks of the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C. Chief Justice of Canada, Toronto, ON, March 8, 2007)


Most of you are in that most hard-pressed of groups- too rich for Legal Aid, too poor to afford a $600/hour Bay Street lawyer. Wary of incurring huge legal bills, Canadians are increasingly turning to self-representation.


The court system has tried to respond the vast numbers of people who cannot afford counsel by increasing the threshold for Small Claims Court to $25,000 and by instituting an Informal Procedure in the Tax Court.  Nevertheless, study after study has shown that, because of the average person’s lack of even basic knowledge about the judicial process, many self-represented litigants do not get justice, even though judges often bend over backward to make the process as fair as possible. While lack of legal training may not be a significant factor when your opponent is also representing himself, it is certainly a disadvantage when the other side is represented by a lawyer. It is arguably even worse in Tax Court where you are taking on the Federal Government with all its resources and power.


So if $600/hr fees are out of the question and uninformed and untrained self-representation is a dangerous exercise, what can you do if you find yourself in a dispute?


One option is to retain a lawyer on a limited scope retainer. Under a limited scope retainer, also called an “unbundling” agreement, you can retain a lawyer to provide legal services for part but not all of a matter. As an example, you may retain a lawyer to draft your pleadings (Statement of Claim, Statement of Defence etc.) but appear in court yourself. Or, you may conduct the entire matter on your own but have a lawyer conduct a judgment debtor examination on your opponent after you have received a favourable award. “Unbundling” legal services keeps costs down and allows you to get help where you need it most.


If you are determined to go it entirely alone, we can still help because we have created training modules to help you prepare to conduct your matter on your own.  Whether it’s appealing an assessment from the CRA in Tax Court or defending a lawsuit in Small Claims Court, we have a module to give you the “Cliff Notes” version of what you need to know to present your case in the best way possible. Our modules include checklists, notes on important cases and pointers on drafting documents, preparing and examining witnesses and making full use of document disclosure. Click here for the checklist in our “So You’re a Plaintiff in Small Claims Court” module.

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