Law prof finds 60-80% of people don't use lawyers

University of Windsor professor Julie Macfarlane finds 80 per cent of people in family court and 60 per cent in civil cases represent themselves and feel overwhelmed in doing so.
Julie Macfarlane has found people who represent themselves in court suffer real trauma in doing so. (University of Windsor)

Is there really any truth to the saying, "he who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client?" It's a question a University of Windsor law professor is attempting to answer.

Julie Macfarlane is in the process of interviewing hundreds of people who have represented themselves in three provinces.

She will present her findings to governments in Ontario, Alberta and B.C.

Macfarlane found up to 80 per cent of people in family court and 60 per cent in civil cases represent themselves.

"This is a huge amount," she said.

Macfarlane is conducting one-hour interviews with people from all three provinces.

She said there are two reasons people choose to represent themselves.

"The simple reason is we have far less legal aid provisions for people to be funded," she said.

The second reason is free information is available online.

"Many people who, in the past, may have decided they could pay for a lawyer if they scrimped and saved on something else, are increasingly coming to the conclusion that, given the amount of information on the internet, perhaps they can do this for themselves and save a great deal of money in the process."

'Real trauma'

Whatever reason, the results are rarely favourable or enjoyable for those who choose to go it alone, according Macfarlane.

"I can certainly tell you I’ve heard a few good stories, but the overwhelming majority of the stories from people are ones of frustrations," Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane found people who represent themselves "suffer real trauma" in doing so.

She said the process "overwhelms them." Many people report feeling as if they were treated as second-class citizens and not taken seriously.

"Many people have no alternative to representing themselves. And there is a sense that people ought to be able to do this themselves," Macfarlane said.

She also found judges can be difficult to deal with, according to reports.

"Judges are accustomed to dealing with legal counsel who are much more familiar with the process. Judges can become exasperated and impatient with self-represented litigants," Macfarlane said.

Even people filing paperwork at the courthouses can prove to be a roadblock. People think those clerks can help them with forms and paperwork, but they can't because they aren't paid to give legal advice.

As a result, forms are sometimes not filled out correctly, and cases are often adjourned because details are missing.

Macfarlane has also interviewed people who have quit jobs to focus on court.

"Some people feel so burned by this process they need counselling," Macfarlane said. "They’re feeling so emotionally overwhelmed, they need more than legal advice."