Self represented litigants: Mediation: Is there hope?

travelbikeThe National Self Represented Litigants Project just published an “Open Letter to the Canadian Judiciary”. It is a thoughtful and important read.

The self-representing writers plead for greater understanding of their plight, and for more tolerance, compassion and assistance.

This letter serves as a reminder that there are some under-utilized services to help those who cannot afford lawyers. Anyone in Ontario can access free mediation intakes with a lawyer or mental health professional mediator, and judges can order this. In- court mediation is free across the province. Custody, support, financial disclosure, property division are all being competently mediated by our family lawyer and mental health professional-mediators every day– for fees as low as $5 an hour. Those with lawyers can use the service too.

Here is our comment on the letter:

This is a very thoughtful open letter and I hope everyone “in the system” reads it.

The demands on court staff, judges, lawyers and mediators are growing, not only because family law has become so complicated, but also because — as this open letter evidences– there are many more unrepresented parties who have greater needs than represented parties. This challenges us all to do better. And just like the SRLs, no one in the system is always at their best. It is a very stressful time for everyone.

I hope we all will have more empathy for everyone: for the SRLs of course, who are very vulnerable as this letter notes; and also for their spouses who may not feel capable of self representing and who must pay a lawyer. Litigating with an SRL can often feel unfair to the party paying the lawyer. I hope for more empathy for the judges who are in most cases going above and beyond to try to help. The adversarial court system is not designed for the numbers of SRLs that we have, and a great deal of judicial, lawyer and SRL education is badly needed to come up with a more coherent understanding of the challenges and potential solutions we are all grappling with.

We are lucky as family mediation service providers to offer unrepresented parties a free or highly subsidized opportunity to negotiate in a process that is balanced, non-judging, respectful and supportive. Legal Aid Ontario now funds certificates for mediation and for negotiated agreements; and the Ontario government provides Family Court Support Workers to further support vulnerable parties who are often not represented by counsel. Each court has an Information & Referral Coordinator whose role includes supporting SRLs as they navigate the system. There are some terrific resources in Ontario.

We find that most unrepresented parties have very positive experiences in mediation, particularly now with the enhanced LAO support, and also with more of our mediators speaking different languages and with both legal and mental health backgrounds. It is so much easier for mediators to understand and address the stresses facing SRLs; it is our job to be non-judging and supportive of the needs of each party. Judges are– in fairness– hired to judge. As this open letter explains, SRLs are not always at their best in court. In a “judging” system, that is definitely a disadvantage.

I hope that more SRLs will take advantage of the deeply subsidized family mediation services— including FREE same day onsite mediation in all Ontario family courts. It is far better designed to meet the needs of SRLs. And remember– under the Family Law Rules you can ask the judge to order the parties to a free and confidential intake meeting with a highly skilled and qualified mediator, and possibly qualify for legal advice through duty counsel, advice counsel or the new LAO legal advice certificates. More SRLs should be asking for this remedy.