Your self-representation road map: Five steps to success (and 5 mistakes to avoid).

Author:Farmer, Devlin

As a lawyer, I've been to court hundreds of times. And I've coached hundreds of self-represented litigants on how to go to court on their own. Here are some steps to consider. Remember, these are general guidelines and you should always check the rules of court and seek legal advice in your own jurisdiction for your particular kind of case.

  1. Do You Have a Case? Don't Go to Court if You Can't Win

    You might feel you are morally right in a dispute but that doesn't mean you have the ingredients necessary to win in court. Judges are bound to follow the law. So, begin by researching what the law says about your particular situation. Legal research can be tricky so make sure you are looking at material for your jurisdiction (don't look up what you need for a restraining order on a California legal website if you live in Nova Scotia!) and your kind of dispute. Then look at what you need to meet the legal requirements to be successful. How are you going to prove the things the law says you need to prove to win your case?

    One big mistake self-represented people make is filing a case where there is no legal issue. What this means is that a judge can only make an order if there is a legal reason to do so. Thus, if your regular coffee shop stopped selling your favourite cupcake, you cannot bring a legal claim against them for damages because you can't get those fabulous cupcakes anymore. Similarly, if your neighbour announces that Martians are controlling Ottawa, you cannot sue him to make him change his mind. Make sure there is a legal rule that can be applied to your facts and that there is a remedy (a solution) that a judge has the authority to make happen if you win your case.

    The way I usually determine whether to proceed with a case is to first ask if the chance of winning is greater than 50%. If it's more likely that I'm going to lose, I will ask my client to give serious thought to considering a reasonable settlement offer or even walking away (if possible) from the dispute. If my research and analysis indicates that the chances are that I will win, I still ask my client, "Is it likely that you will be better off having gone to trial than not?" After all the stress, time and money spent on a trial, sometimes it is not worth winning.

  2. Organization is Key--Don't miss a deadline!

    Going to court can feel totally overwhelming with a million jigsaw pieces to put together. But litigation has timelines with goals. So, take a breath and plot out what...

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