family-court-legal-coachingWhat is legal coaching?

The concept of legal coaching is best understood by redefining – at least to an extent – the relationship between lawyer and client. The lawyer does not represent you; you represent yourself. The lawyer now becomes a coach or tutor whose role is to prepare and guide you to represent yourself in family court proceedings. Although you are still a client of the lawyer, the relationship is now analogous to that of student and tutor.

Without a lawyer acting on your behalf in court, you are referred to as a “self-represented litigant,” (SRL), or, as an “unrepresented litigant.” True, you are unrepresented in that no lawyer is acting on your behalf, but in fact, you are represented, but by yourself. This relatively new concept applies only to family court matters, at least for the present.

What is unbundling of legal services; how can it help with legal fees?

Several years ago, the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) commissioned a study which, amongst its many findings, noted that “over 57% of Ontarians did not have legal representation in family court in 2014/15. Just over 21,000 people were unrepresented.”

The largest contributing factor, according to the study, is the expense involved, a large part of which is, of course, legal fees.  The report states,

“…it is not surprising that…those with higher incomes were significantly more likely to have a lawyer.” Given the economy and what is said to be a massive, personal debt load, this is fairly predictable. This lead to the new concept of the “unbundling” of legal services. As opposed to the current, full service model, unbundled legal services allow clients to pick and choose what they want their lawyers to provide. For example, clients can retain their lawyer to write correspondence for them but the client’s name replaces that of the lawyer on the documents.

When clients wish to act as self-represented litigants, they might retain their lawyer to review the other side’s documents and point out issues or areas of attack. And of course, the lawyers can also be retained to coach and prepare the clients for motions and trial. This is how unbundled services and legal coaching will work together.

How legal coaching can benefit you as a self-represented litigant

self-represented-litigant-SRLCan you, and should you, be your own lawyer? The obvious answer to that question is that only you can make that choice. Naturally, that’s not very helpful, so here’s some information that might assist you to arrive at a more informed decision.

First, representing oneself is, for most people, extremely demanding and difficult, not just in the legal sense, but the psychological sense as well. The report quotes legal professor Julie Macfarlane: “The psychological impacts of self-representation in the current state of the family law system are significant and concerning. Many SRLs [self-represented litigants] described high levels of stress, lost nights of sleep, depression, and feeling traumatized by the experience.” She goes on to say that this extended to family, friends and children if self-litigants became fixated on the case, which apparently is more likely than not, according to the 250 people in the study.

Second, the odds are obviously against self-litigants in court when they are opposed by someone who has retained professional legal representation. The report offers these statistics, “For motions, unrepresented litigants had 124 wins and 720 losses. For applications, they had 9 wins and 56 losses. For trials, they had 30 wins and 84 losses.”

Third, judges claim “that self-representation substantially lengthens the time required to resolve or manage a case.” The system is actually becoming more burdened and self-representing litigants suffer an extended period of time until the case is finally resolved.

Making the decision: asking your lawyer to be a legal coach

There are two ways to consider this information: to begin with, the 250 people in this study likely entered the court with little or no concept of how the court functions or what to expect, and were in all likelihood, under prepared. No wonder that it would be psychologically devastating for them, and no wonder that the outcomes would be so overwhelmingly against them. They are amateurs being pitted against professionals!  Given all of this, a reasonable answer to the question, “Is it for me?” is, for many people, likely to be no.

But now you’re back to square one and facing those expenses you wanted to avoid in the first place. This is where the second approach might have potential to help: those 250 litigants in the study might have fared better had they been professionally coached. The report quotes Nikki Gershbain, National Director of Pro Bono Students Canada, who offers this more optimistic outlook:

A legal coach can provide their clients, who are primarily acting for themselves, with the information, assistance, strategic advice, and practical tips needed to be persuasive in presenting their case. It’s about preparing you to present your case in the most realistically persuasive light.

In other words, with legal coaching, self-representing litigants are no longer defenseless. They are still amateurs, but they will be given skills, tools and insights, and coached in the practice of using them effectively.

Final Considerations for representing yourself in family court

Undoubtedly there will still be stress and duress, and each person must examine his or her own ability to tolerate it. But they should know that as self represented litigants, their legal financial obligations will be reduced, and that, although legal coaching can’t guarantee a fully level playing field, it should place the angle much closer to the horizon.

As a lawyer who devotes much of his practice to Family Law, I have taken professional workshops in legal coaching to provide the best tutoring that I possibly can for my clients. For additional information or any concerns regarding these matters, please call our office for a complimentary consultation. We are conveniently located in the Toronto area and can be reached at Howard Nightingale Professional Corporation, 416 633 4423 (toll free 1 -877-224-8225), or begin with a visit to our website, www.howardnightingale.com.

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