How an adversarial system can adapt to the rise of self-represented litigants

By Yves Faguy April 26, 201826 April 2018

In a recent Canadian Bar Review article, Jennifer A. Leitch notes an uptick in members of the traditional middle class joining the ranks of self-represented litigants. With time these litigants -- “not otherwise marginalized within society” -- are likely to take a more critical view of the legal profession’s value. Leitch also discusses how our adversarial system of justice is being forced to evolve as a result of the extraordinary growth of self-representation:

This approach to truth-seeking in an adversarial system is problematic due to the fact that the truth-finding process is often idealized but not always functional. The reality is that the adversarial process tends to ignore inequalities within the system and between the parties.

These inequalities may stem from a lack of resources (e.g., monetary) or a discrepancy in skills or experience such that one party is disadvantaged in terms of being able to investigate and present their best case and test the opposing party’s case. The result is that inequalities between the parties leave the truth-finding mechanism open to manipulation and this serves to undermine the objectives of the system as a whole. One example in this regard is cross- examination. Notwithstanding that cross-examination is often touted as an essential component of the truth-finding process in an adversarial system, the benefits of cross-examinations may also be subverted through rhetorical manipulation and imbalances in lawyers’ resources and/or skills. This further helps to discredit “opposing testimony known to be truthful.” At best, cross-examinations may discover and reveal untruths, but may be less effective at discerning the truth. At worst, the process of cross-examination reflects an affront to the dignity of those being cross-examined. The consequence of this manifestation of adversarialism is that the legal system becomes “more and more removed from the substantive justice concerns of ordinary people.”

Interestingly, Leitch suggests it might be time to accept SRLs as a normal feature of our modern civil justice system, which would require rethinking the code of conduct rules around the legal profession’s engagement with SRLs, possibly borrowing from inquisitorial norms, and redefining the responsibilities of lawyers toward them.




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