Self-Represented Litigants and the Struggle to be Heard

Courts in many countries have been striving to provide various services to help facilitate the increasing number of self-represented litigants who need their services—especially in family law cases. In Ontario, Canada, the National Self-Represented Litigants Project recently published An Open Letter to the Canadian Judiciary, meant to encourage a dialogue between self-represented litigants (SRLs) and judges, who may struggle at times to effectively assist SRLs in their courtrooms. The letter acknowledges that not “any one part of the legal system can 'fix' all the problems associated with the high costs of legal services and the rising number of self-represented litigants,” but states that judges can make a significant difference.

We write this letter not to lay blame, but to try to explain the widespread experience of SRLs in our legal system and to solicit your support in bringing about small, meaningful changes in the climate of the courtroom to make it a friendlier and more inclusive arena for some of life's most challenging contests.

The letter addresses three widely shared aspects of SRLs' experience within the legal system, and hopes that if judges can better understand their situation, more positive experiences can be had by all parties.

  1. SRLs are not representing themselves because they want to; they are doing it out of necessity.
  2. SRLs just want to be treated with respect, which includes explanation of legal terminology and processes.
  3. Judges don't always recognize the inherent difficulty of representing one's own interests in a complicated legal system combined with the emotional toll when so much is at stake.

Overall, the letter hopes to foster a more welcoming environment for SRLs in the legal system, with judges leading the way.

Riley Combelic is a third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to iaals@du.edu.