For a myriad of reasons, many people believe that they are better off handling their divorce or other family law matters on their own, without the assistance of a lawyer. Some people are put-off by lawyers having intimate details regarding their family and separation, while others are concerned that involving lawyers could jeopardize the amicable nature of their separation. In addition, many people are unable or unwilling, or concerned about paying the costs associated with hiring a family law lawyer. Whatever the reason may be, it is not uncommon for individuals to want to handle their divorce or family law matters by themselves. Despite the potential benefit of saved legal costs, representing yourself in family law matters is risky, and self-represented litigants in family law matters should proceed with caution for (at least) the following reasons:
- Separation agreements reached without the benefit of independent legal advice may not be enforceable. Particularly where they are signed without the proper exchange of full financial disclosure, separation agreements completed by self-represented people may be highly vulnerable to being determined invalid if challenged. If either party changes their mind on an agreement, and wishes to deviate from what they previously agreed upon, it may be possible for them to do so if the agreement was not completed properly in the first instance. If it can be shown that a party did not understand the agreement or what they were properly entitled to under the applicable law, or that they were coerced into signing the agreement, there is a good chance that the agreement in question will not be enforceable. A separation agreement reviewed by each party with their independent counsel that is supported by the exchange adequate financial disclosure substantially strengthens the likelihood that an agreement will hold up if challenged by either party in the long run.
- Those without a formal legal education and experience in the appropriate jurisdiction can make mistakes that could be easily avoided by experienced counsel. Unrepresented individuals may make mistakes that jeopardize their rights, and their mistakes may have devastating and potentially irreversible effects on their family legal matter. Divorce Judgments, Parenting or Child Support Orders and Agreements can be final and difficult to change or fix if required, and deadlines to respond to certain legal documents can be strict. The cost of attempting to fix or change a mistake can be much more than the cost that would have been incurred to complete the process or document correctly with a lawyer the first time.
- If your concern relates to the potential effect lawyers may have on your otherwise amicable family dynamics, you should be aware that experienced family legal counsel should not be adding to the conflict in your family. Under the Divorce Act it is the duty of every legal adviser who undertakes to act on a person’s behalf under the Act to encourage the person to attempt to resolve the matters that may be the subject of an order under this Act through a family dispute resolution process unless the circumstance of the case is of such a nature that it would clearly not be appropriate to do so. A legal advisor also has a duty to inform every person of the family justice services known to them that might assist the person in resolving matters at issue, or in complying with any order or decision made under the Act. Similar duties bind legal counsel under the Family Law Act (Alberta). Lawyers have a duty to act on their client’s instructions, so you should not be worried about your lawyer increasing conflict in your family if you are not instructing them to act in a manner that will do so. It is also important to recall that clients have the right to terminate their lawyers’ services at their own discretion for whatever reason they want, so if you believe a lawyer is adding to the conflict in your family against your instructions, it is within your power to terminate their representation of you, and retain a lawyer who is prepared to follow your instructions and minimize conflict for your family.