Edmonton Journal

Monday, January 28, 2002

Keeping legal battles out of the courts

New methods help curtail civil trials

Gordon Kent, Legal Affairs Writer
Edmonton Journal

Judges and legal experts are concerned that a trend toward people handling their own court cases is putting a spoke into the wheels of justice. It can bog down courts, hurt the chances of the unrepresented party, and cost you money.

- Today: Solving the problem out of court.

- - -

One way to stop people without lawyers from clogging the courts is to put fewer people through the court system in the first place.

Judges and justice officials have put a lot of energy over the past few years into finding better ways to solve legal fights than letting two robed combatants duke it out before the bar.

Mediation, judicial dispute resolution (in which judges outline likely verdicts after hearing brief versions of the facts to spur settlement), alternate measures to avoid a record in criminal charges -- all are helping simplify things.

The moves seem to be working, says Bart Johnson of Alberta Justice. There were 949 civil trials (excluding family matters) heard in Alberta Court of Queen's Bench last year, down from 1,671 four years earlier.

At the same time, the average wait for a civil trial shorter than six days has dropped by a month, to about half a year.

Still, the province recognizes it must deal with the issue of lawyerless litigants, Johnson says. "The government always is looking at other ways to address this issue and all other issues related to access to justice."

There are many other ideas for handling what is widely seen as a growing problem for society and the justice system:

- A mandatory course on court procedure for lay people wanting to file their own legal applications; judges now have to take time showing non-lawyers the ropes in the daily motions courts, Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Allan Wachowich says.

- Duty counsel in civil courts, similar to the duty counsel who give brief, on-the-spot advice in all major Alberta centres to unrepresented people facing criminal charges; some provinces already offer this program.

- An $80,000 pilot project started in Edmonton last fall requires people without lawyers to meet a court worker before going to provincial court on a family matter; the worker tries to get the sides to settle issues by consent, or ensures everyone is ready if the matter goes to trial.

- In 2000, more than two dozen self-help booklets were made available through the Court of Queen's Bench for people representing themselves in family court.

There have also been calls to loosen regulations governing the legal profession.

Edmonton lawyer Naeem Rauf represents a Drayton Valley woman charged with violating the Legal Profession Act for allegedly taking part in real estate transactions. He'll launch a constitutional challenge at the woman's April trial, hoping to strike down a section of the act that prevents non-lawyers from giving legal advice.

"It's very paternalistic of lawyers to presume to tell members of the public that for this you have to have lawyers and no one else," he says.

"I think as long as the person is advised very fairly and clearly, with no deception, that the person isn't a lawyer ... he should be able to decide who he will take his business to."

If successful, the biggest impact of the case would probably be to give para-legals the right to do simple real estate deals and other straightforward work, Rauf says.

But he thinks informed customers should have choices. "The ostensible reason for the section is to protect the public. What about those sections of the public that don't want to be protected?"

Members of his profession already try to make sure their services are available to people who can't afford to pay.

Many take on legal aid cases at less than their normal rates. There is also an ancient tradition of doing free work pro bono (for the public good) which the law society is trying to encourage.

Rhonda Ruston, chair of the Law Society of Alberta's pro bono committee, says they're looking at ways to improve this service.

The law society gave advice and helped find volunteers for the new Edmonton Centre for Equal Justice, which opened this month with a roster of almost 50 lawyers donating their time.

They assist poor people facing housing, small claims, employment, immigration and other non-criminal matters.

A similar office in Calgary has been running for 29 years, says Ruston, a Lethbridge family lawyer.

"We believe if we give a formal opportunity for lawyers to become involved in pro bono legal services, it makes it easier for us to do it."

Judges and legal experts are concerned that a trend toward people handling their own court cases is putting a spoke into the wheels of justice. It can bog down courts, hurt the chances of the unrepresented party, and cost you money.

n Today: Solving the problem out of court.

© Copyright 2002 Edmonton Journal