Dealing Effectively with Self-Represented Litigants: A view from the bench.

AuthorGraesser, Robert

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Nine tips for anyone involved with self-represented litigants (SRLs), including a look at the responsibilities of lawyers and the court.

I can only speculate on the reasons for the surge over the last 20 years in people representing themselves in all forms of litigation. One may be the high cost of litigation. Another may be the availability of and ease of access to legal information on the internet. I sometimes wonder if television shows oversimplifying the law encourage people to go it alone, without considering the complexity of the legal system, the rules of evidence, and the convoluted process to court. Or maybe people are more aware of their legal rights.

In nearly 16 years of dealing with self-represented litigants (SRLs), I have concluded most are sincere, sane and simply trying to protect what they believe to be their rights. A minority of SRLs are personality disordered, vexatious and malevolent. They have no genuine interest in resolving their dispute unless and until they have won. They are unable to see anything but their own interests and positions and are oblivious to anyone else's feelings or rights. They may well have ample funds with which to hire a lawyer, but they think they're smarter than everyone else, or they haven't been able to find a lawyer who agrees with their position and who is willing to be their mouthpiece.

Whatever the case, SRLs will continue to be part of our legal system. Below are my nine tips for anyone working with SRLs.

  1. Resources for lawyers

    A starting point, because I do not want to reinvent the wheel, is the Law Society of Alberta's module on Self-Represented Parties. It is a good mix of ethical rules and standards and common sense.

    Shortly after I was appointed to the bench, I was introduced to books by Bill Eddy, a California lawyer, therapist and family mediator. Bill's first book in 2008, Managing High Conflict People in Court, was a great read. His basic thesis is that a significant portion of the difficult litigants in court (particularly in family law) have borderline personality disorders or exhibit these traits. In my view, this book is a "must read" for lawyers dealing with high conflict opponents, whether they be SRLs or difficult lawyers.

    After reading this book, I spent time analyzing the various personalities appearing in front of me. But that was little help in finding ways of dealing with these individuals. Bill's 2014 book, BIFF (brief, informative, firm and fair), provides a pathway for dealing with anyone who is a high conflict person, regardless of their traits or disorders. The book emphasizes there is little point arguing with difficult people. They hear what they want to hear and may have no...

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