Why is Dellen Millard questioning Laura Babcock's father in court? Because he can

Accused of first-degree murder in the death of Laura Babcock, Dellen Millard is representing himself and grilling the father of his alleged victim in court.

Accused killer is representing himself in court, and that could make for a longer and more complicated trial

From left to right: Dellen Millard, Mark Smich, Justice Michael Code, Clayton Babcock and Crown lawyer Jill Cameron in court on Monday. (Pam Davies/CBC)

On one side of the courtroom, a watery-eyed father sits in the witness box, having just gone through some painful last memories of his daughter's life.

On the other side, the man accused of murdering his daughter stands up, looks the father in the eye, and starts asking questions.

"Did you ever hit her or abuse her in any way?" he asks. "Did she ever tell you that she worked as prostitute?"

This was the scene in Ontario Superior Court on Monday in Toronto. The father was Clayton Babcock, whose daughter Laura Babcock vanished more than five years ago. She was 23 at the time.

The man asking him questions was Dellen Millard, 32, who is representing himself at his first-degree murder trial before a jury. His co-accused, Mark Smich, 30, has a lawyer.

Babcock handled the bizarre scenario with poise, calmly and coherently answering Millard's questions as if they were coming from a defence lawyer.

Clayton Babcock, centre, father of Laura Babcock, leaves court after testifying as a witness. (CBC)

But it was clear he's no lawyer, and Millard has already been warned about "very repetitive" questioning by Justice Michael Code.

It was an early indication of the problems self-represented defendants can create for the courts.

And while this case may be exceptional in some ways, experts say "self-reps," as they're called, are appearing more often in the Canadian justice system.

'Judge's worst nightmare'

"A self-represented accused causes all kinds of problems. It really is a judge's worst nightmare," defence lawyer Ingrid Grant said in an interview.

Grant has also worked as a court-appointed amicus on several occasions, including the trial of Chiheb Esseghaier, who was convicted of plotting to derail a VIA passenger train. He is appealing the conviction.

Laura Babcock disappeared from Toronto in 2012. Dellen Millard and Mark Smich have been charged with her murder. (Facebook)

An amicus is sometimes appointed by the judge to assist a self-represented defendant.

While this has not been ordered for Millard, he has hired a legal assistant on a "limited scope retainer." She will only provide "support service" and not any advice or legal strategy.

Grant and other experts say it is rare for a defendant not to have a lawyer when the stakes are as high as they are in a murder trial.

Dellen Millard, left, and Mark Smich, right, are accused of first-degree murder in the death of Babcock. (Facebook, Instagram)

A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence.

"Not very often will you hear of a person without a lawyer on a murder charge. That's pretty unusual," Grant said.

Making trouble

But in other areas of the legal system, such as family law, experts say it's becoming increasingly common in Canada, and the system is having to adapt.

The most common reason people don't have a lawyer is because they can't afford it.

Trevor Farrow, a law professor at Osgoode Hall, says a small percentage of defendants choose to represent themselves in order to 'cause trouble.' (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Leading up to trial, Millard told the court he could not pay for a lawyer because he couldn't access his assets. He also indicated he wanted to represent himself.

Trevor Farrow, a law professor at York University's Osgoode Hall who has researched self-representation, said that even when legal aid is available, some defendants still choose to represent themselves.

"We see some people who just choose not to, and in a Home Depot world where we all do our own tiling and bathrooms, people are starting to think we can do our own legal work," Farrow said.

There have also been cases of people with mental health problems denying themselves legal counsel.

As well, Farrow said, a small percentage of defendants choose to represent themselves in order to "cause trouble."

Longer, cumbersome trials

"It makes the case more cumbersome," Farrow said. "It does often take longer."

Farrow said trials with self-represented defendants become a lot more complicated, especially for judges.

"The judge is a role in our society designed simply to be an arbiter between two equal parties. And that's just not the case when you have one self-represented litigant," he said.

Judges must do their best to assist self-represented defendants in order to ensure a fair trial, Farrow said, but there can't be "two sets of rules" for lawyers and the self-represented.

Walking that line is crucial, said Grant, as a failure to do so can open up a court's decision to appeal.

She said appeal courts may scrutinize the conviction of a self-represented defendant more, checking to see if proper legal issues and objections were raised during a trial.

"If a person is self-represented, no one is going to assume that anything was strategic. They're going to assume they didn't know what they were doing," Grant said.