In a case that illustrates the desperation of self-represented litigants in family courts, Rhonda Nordlander, also known as Rhonda Nordlander-Nalli in court documents, asked the court to allow her to be represented for free by a person who dubs himself “a family justice advocate.”
Nordlander is fighting for access and custody of her children. She says she has become impecunious since attempting to resolve her issues in the courts but does not qualify for legal aid.
For her representation motion, Nordlander partly relied on a web page that said a court may allow non-lawyer agents to represent litigants unless the agent has been shown to be incompetent, is in trouble with the law, or would damage the fairness of the proceedings.
“The webpage extract is a perfect example of how unreliable the Internet is as a source of information,” Justice Jamie Trimble said. “The unattributed, anonymous statement of law this [website] provides and on which Ms. Nalli relies, like so much on the Internet, should not be accepted blindly or uncritically.
“This ‘advice’ is just wrong,” he added.
Nordlander had also relied on R. v. Romanowicz to point out that non-lawyer agents could represent people with courts’ approval. But the judge rejected that argument, saying, “In my view, since the Criminal Code specifically allows agents to act in summary convictions, the case has no application to the issue before me.”
Trimble said in some circumstances, family courts may approve of an agent if the person is “a subject to a binding code of ethics that reinforces professional, ethical conduct and sanctions departure from it.”
The agent would also have to be bound in law by confidentiality laws and carry liability insurance, the judge said, adding Nordlander did not present proof of any of this.
Vernon Beck, the agent Nordlander wanted to be represented by, is the founder of an organization called Canada Court Watch. He says for 20 years, he’s provided information and support to families caught up in the system for free and has previously been granted approval by a court to represent a 16-year-old pregnant girl in a child protection matter.
If people choose to be represented by a non-lawyer, they should be allowed to, he tells Legal Feeds.
“People have that right to make informed choices. Once we start using the law to take away their informed choices, we are taking away people’s freedoms,” says Beck. “We should not have legislation taking away people’s right to free choice. It’s a very fundamental right that people have. Many people would agree that the Law Society [of Upper Canada] has become a monopoly.”
Trimble said he had “great sympathy” for Nordlander’s situation but she has failed to meet “the legal and evidentiary burden to be met in order to convince the court to exercise its discretion under [Family Law] Rule 4(1)(c).”
For her part, Nordlander says the case is being compromised by her self-representation and she is at her wits’ end.
“I wanted somebody to speak for me because it’s too emotional for me,” she says. “I get a lot of anxiety from court,” she adds, noting she’s now looking for lawyer who would help her pro bono.