Human rights lawyer Amer Mushtaq is trying to streamline access to justice for self-representing litigants going through the Ontario small claims court system with an online course he has developed.
Individuals hoping to represent themselves in a dispute — whether they are filing or responding to a claim — can take the $199 online course prior to filing or attending trial in order to understand the complex process. The video guide is broken up into steps with PowerPoint slideshow presentation addressing key issues self-representing litigants tend to face.
In the past few years, Mushtaq has become more aware of the problems potential clients have with small claims court cases.
“They want help, but they just can’t afford our firm,” he says.
After looking deeper into the issue last year, Mushtaq was surprised to learn that very little help was available online for the average individual.
“I found really nothing. There is some information from the Ministry of Attorney General, which gives you some guidance about what to do in small claims court, but nothing concrete,” he says.
And there is a whole array of topics individuals tend to find murky. Starting a claim, defending a claim, filling out the form, presenting relevant evidence, dressing appropriately in court, keeping with court decorum, and choosing the correct court location are among some of the concerns that come up, Mushtaq says.
“I’ve come across cases where clients have come to me, they have started their court action, let’s say, in Brampton and then the defendant stood up and said, ‘No you are in the wrong court, Brampton does not have a jurisdiction for this matter,’” he says, “and they are lost… they (self-representing litigants) don’t even understand that.”
It is essential for self-representing litigants to resolve that kind of issue prior to filing a claim, which undoubtedly will save them time and money
“Another common problem that people often face is, that they don’t have the right documents for the trial,” says Mushtaq.
Individuals may have a solid case, but they don’t provide the documents to prove it to the judge or to the opposing side, “and they are just hoping that they will tell their story and the judge will believe it,” he explains.
Sympathetic pleas rather than presenting the facts is yet another area of frustration for the judge that the self-represented individual may not be aware of. “You got terminated from let’s say, employment, whether you have three kids or four kids or you are single mother may not be a relevant thing for the judge,” says Mushtaq.
Finally, he says “there is no trial by ambush.” Those who self-represent often don’t realize they must present all their evidence prior to the trial rather than pull it out at a dire moment during the trial like “they see in the movies,” Mushtaq says.
Because all the evidence must be prepared and filed prior to the trial, it often costs more for a lawyer or paralegal to take on a small claims court case, rather than a superior court case.
Mushtaq says the course he developed will help save individuals money even when comparing its cost to the most modest pricing of representation.
To render services from Formative LLP, where Mushtaq is a partner — and settle as soon as possible at mediation the client will spend at least $2,500. The same service via a paralegal would cost $1,500 he says.
One of the most expensive small claims cases Mushtaq represented ended up costing the client $10,000. The figure heavily depends on the number of days of trial. “I had a small claims trial that lasted for six days and three sessions,” he notes.