In the summer of 2013, a group of legal professionals and ordinary citizens gathered at the University of Windsor to discuss law professor Julie Macfarlane’s work on the needs of self-represented litigants.
What she didn’t realize at the time was that her research would lead to the launch of the national project she has spent much of the last seven years leading.
Macfarlane remembered how it went in a recent interview with the Star: Toward the end of those two days in 2013 her then-dean stood up and said, “I think we should start a project at Windsor to follow through with some of these report findings and recommendations.”
Then, she said: “Everybody went, ‘That’s a great idea’ — and then they all look at me.”
Now, after nearly seven years at the helm of a key resource for self-represented litigants, Macfarlane has to face the fact that she can’t go on much longer.
She has incurable cancer, for which she’s been receiving treatment for years while at the same time trying to better the situation for those who can’t afford a lawyer.
Macfarlane has now made the difficult decision to step back at the end of this year.
At a time when the number of self-represented litigants is at an all-time high, Macfarlane is spending her final year as director fighting for the project’s survival and looking for a successor to take up the cause.
Nearly half of litigants appear now in family court without a lawyer, with the number closer to 80 per cent in some areas.
With those figures in mind, Macfarlane and her team are looking to turn the project into a not-for-profit and embark on a fundraising campaign with the hope of securing some private foundation finding, primarily to find the position of executive director. (Macfarlane has done the job while also working as a law professor at the University of Windsor.)
Aside from her, the project also has two full-time staff members, whose salaries have largely been covered through project grants, along with students.
“What I want is to make sure the NSRLP outlives me,” she said. “I may have another couple of years, who knows, and I want to plan for the future. I want to find somebody else who, along with my amazing board and the team that I have, will be able to take this forward.”
Macfarlane had breast cancer in 2010 and was cleared in 2013, only to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014, a year after the project launched. The cancer has been chronic since 2016, she said.
In between treatments over the years Macfarlane has led the NSRLP as it’s studied the phenomenon of self-represented litigants, helping to level the playing field for them — “There’s an awful lot of work you can do in bed, it’s amazing, really,” she said.
There have been countless articles, blog posts, podcasts and ongoing research. There are the constant emails and phone calls from self-reps, who the project has tried to connect with other self-reps, encouraging them to build networks to assist each other.
One major initiative is a directory of legal professionals who offer what are known as “unbundled services” — where a person only pays someone such as a lawyer for specific services, while remaining in charge of their case. It’s a concept that the NSRLP has championed for years, and promoted with the help of senior provincial judges when it launched the directory in 2017.
The project has also posted primers geared toward self-reps across Canada, helping them understand everything from where to stand and what to wear in a courtroom, how to prepare for mediation, and how to search CanLii, the online database of court decisions.
“I think the courts and government have made efforts over the years and are making efforts to try to make it better for people without lawyers, but it’s hard because that’s not how the whole thing was set up,” said Julie Matthews, executive director of Community Legal Education Ontario, which provides education and information to help people exercise their legal rights.
“The NSRLP has got a really important voice. They encourage dialogue between the justice sector professionals and self-represented litigants and I think they’ve done a good job at fostering that dialogue. They really are trying, and have produced resources specifically for self-represented litigants.”
The project will be embarking on an ambitious fund-raising drive this year, under the campaign slogan Justice4All, to stabilize its funding for the years to come, which includes the ability to donate through the University of Windsor’s website.
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The project’s usual work continues as well. It’s currently undertaking an evaluation for the Immigration Appeal Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board, asking the question, “How SRL friendly are you?”
“We’re going to be looking for funders as well who are outside the legal arena, because the issue of people as ordinary citizens getting access to justice is, I think, very much a part of the movement toward participation and consumer empowerment,” Macfarlane said.
“The difficulty of affording legal assistance, at least for protracted periods, is something affecting a huge number of Canadians, too wealthy to qualify for legal aid but too poor to pay a lawyer for a year for their divorce,” she said. “What we’re hoping is to interest some people who, through their family foundations or their philanthropy, are genuinely interested in this problem affecting a lot of Candians and work on building solutions.”