Popular Family Law Online Course for Independent Litigants

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

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For those in the midst of a divorce or 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 custody agreement for five years. “We were a $300,000 a year family. Today, five years later, I am on disability and have a debt of $200,000. I have no money. He basically used all my money.

Kim, who hasn’t used her real name to protect her children’s identities, has found some hope and comfort in a Windsor-based online pilot program that provides unrepresented litigants with the tools to help them navigate the justice system on their own. .

It 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 is located within the faculty. With funding from the Department of Justice, the NSRLP launched the Family Litigants School, a free 12-week pilot program in January.

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Dayna Cornwall, Project Manager of the National Unrepresented Litigants Project at the University of Windsor, is featured on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Dayna Cornwall, Project Manager of the National Unrepresented Litigants Project at the University of Windsor, is featured on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Project manager Dayna Cornwall said self-represented litigants are a “huge, huge problem within the justice system. The largest proportion of unrepresented litigants are found in family law. We see this as the greatest need.
Cornwall said self-represented litigants sometimes make up 50% of family law cases, and in busy courtrooms in major centers like Toronto, that can be as high as 80%.

“It’s very telling,” Cornwall said. “The main reason is that they can’t afford a lawyer and they’re confusing the process because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

When the NSRLP opened registration last December, all 40 spots were taken in two hours by people literally living across Canada.

“I was surprised,” Cornwall said. “I knew we would have no problem filling those spots, but I thought in a couple of weeks we would be full.”

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Kim discovered the program through a Facebook group.

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

Participants learn how to research case law, build a good case, create affidavits, present evidence, navigate a settlement conference, and prepare for trial. They learn important courtroom decorum, such as when to stand and how to address a judge.

Cornwall said there was also a segment on dealing with emotions and self-care.

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“It can be a traumatic process to navigate the system,” she said. “It’s something that 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, attorneys, mediators and former self-advocates. Each session ends with a panel of two to three experts answering questions from the students.

“This is the first course of its kind, aimed at the public and self-advocates,” Cornwall said. “Hopefully we can find a way to continue because obviously there’s a demand for that.”

The current grant allows the NSRLP to offer the course once again. The pilot course ends next month and Cornwall said the group will assess feedback and refine the program before offering it again next fall.

Tools and resources are available on the NSRLP website at yourepresentcanada.com.

The NSRLP is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Nancy I. Romero