Focus On

Eagles’ eye view of self-representation in family court | Stéphanie Plante

Thursday, May 14, 2020 @ 2:17 PM | By Stéphanie Plante


Stéphanie Plante %>
Stéphanie Plante
As Mother’s Day 2020 came and went, I realized for the first time in three years that due to court closures I didn’t spend the weekend drafting, researching or working on my family law file. What is normally a precious day for mothers to be pampered and get breakfast in bed has been for the last three years a day for fretting about court forms, affidavit wording and searching case law.

As a self-represented litigant (SRL) weekends and evenings are often spent this way and, to the point where I would joke that my file is the Hotel California of family law files. Oddly, court closures and global pandemics have also meant a momentary reprieve from my child’s father's favourite way of communicating with me: court visits.

As an SRL, I have no desire to ever to initiate proceedings (nor would I even know how to). I would rather chew exposed brick than go to court. But anyone who has a child with a high-conflict individual will tell you: You can check out of the marriage, but you can never leave.

Dispute resolution clauses are useless, appeals to a child’s best interest are unresponded to, judges’ suggestions about parenting co-ordinators are ignored or countered with arguments about the “administration of justice.” I once suggested a mid-week visit (we have a week-on, week-off schedule) and my ex and his lawyer promptly pushed the self-destruct button on our dispute resolution clause, my finances and free time.

Every time I end up in court (and 161 Elgin St. the address of the Superior Court in Ottawa is my number one  destination in my Uber app) I open by apologizing for being there, then apologize for any mistakes in my paperwork and remind His or Her Honour that I have never started a single motion or proceeding in our family law file. Yet somehow every decision or comment from the bench centres around the “high conflict” nature of our file, and how this is bad for kids. The guilt of this weighs on me. I don’t take pride in the fact that we are part of the very small percentage of parents whose family law files stretch for years and years. When this all started, our child had all his baby teeth and now he is on the verge of getting braces.

What no one also sees are the weekly visits I’ve made to the Family Law Information Centre, only to wait two hours to get 15 minutes of legal advice, the job interviews I’ve passed up and vacation time I’ve exhausted to wait at the court counter to deposit, and correct paperwork, the embarrassing conversations with friends about “how things are going,” the professional development opportunities or socializing I’ve declined because I had to spend time drafting documents or attend a seminar how to navigate online resources, the endless frustrations and time spent with the online forms which never align properly.

I once had a well-meaning colleague forward me the County of Carleton Law Association weekly newsletter to let me know that my case had been featured. Great. Not only do I not get to choose to not go to court every few months, I don’t get to choose who knows about it. If anyone knows where the DivorceMate calculation input for “time spent completely mortified” is, please let me know.

161 Elgin St.: Any time of year, you can find me here

To my ex’s lawyer I would say this: If you’re turning over every family law leaf just because your client wants to avoid a mid-week visit, and by that I specifically mean attempting a contempt motion, alienating our designated arbitrator with endless repetitive e-mails, or inquiring about “father’s rights” judges in our city, I suspect the remunerative quality to the work you’re doing trumps the best interests of the child consideration.

In my six years of court visits (I’ve counted 17 so far), I have gotten to know (as much as one can) the people working at the counter and even some of the court staff. While it is not normal to know the due date of the pregnant security guard and wonder how her planned c-section went while in quarantine, the knowing wink they give you when you pass through the metal detector is a friendly reminder that our legal system has many moving parts, and all the pieces matter.

To the wonderful judges in our city: I will never forget the kindness and patience you display every day in your respective courtrooms, towards me and other SRLs. While I may have often felt legally, financially and intellectually outmatched in front of a member of the bench, I have never felt diminished by a member of the bench. The former is extremely problematic, and the latter offers a small glimmer of hope for SRLs. This distinction is important. May their (often bilingual) remarks help us navigate this new normal going forward. 

When the courts reopen and we all return to some semblance of normal, my life will return to “normal” as well. My ex is planning a motion to change which will undoubtedly take up most of summer and fall 2020. This is probably not at all what the Eagles envisioned when they sang, “this could be heaven or this could be hell,” but for now, I will enjoy the momentary calm before the storm.

Stéphanie Plante is executive director with the International Commission of Jurists-Canada and an election consultant who has provided services and expertise in jurisdictions across Canada and around the world. She is currently the francophone liaison for Take Me Outside and Twice Upon a Time. E-mail her at stephanie.plante@icjcanada.org.

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to The Lawyer’s Dailycontact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at peter.carter@lexisnexis.ca or call 647-776-6740.