Many people going to court without a lawyer find that having a trusted friend with them to provide emotional support, take notes, and organize documents can be a big help. As part of its efforts to improve meaningful access to justice for self-represented litigants, the BC Provincial Court was the first court in Canada to develop and adopt Guidelines for Using a Support Person in Provincial Court.
When can I bring a friend or ‘support person’ to court to help me?
The Court generally welcomes ‘support persons’ to provide quiet help to self-represented litigants in civil and family court trials. However, individual judges may not permit a support person if their presence would be disruptive or unfair in a particular case.
What can a support person do?
A support person may:
Who should act as a support person?
Choose someone who:
The National Self-Represented Litigants Project offers a guide to Choosing and Presenting a Courtroom Companion. See pages 4 to 14 for more information on choosing the right support person.
How should I introduce my support person?
When your case is called, walk to the front of the courtroom. Give your name and tell the judge you have a support person with you who understands the Court’s Guidelines. Give the support person’s name and say whether they are a friend or family member.
The judge may ask the other party if they have any objection. If they object, listen to their reasons. When you reply, tell the judge why you need your support person. You can also explain that your support person knows the Court’s Guidelines, knows they cannot speak aloud during the trial, and will remain calm. See pages 17 to 19 of Choosing and Presenting a Courtroom Companion for tips on how best to explain why you need a support person.
Why might a judge refuse to permit a support person?
The judge will want to hear you and understand your case clearly. However, the judge must also hear the other side and ensure that both parties feel fairly treated. Judges need to concentrate on the real issues and the evidence presented in a trial. To do this, they need to maintain control over the courtroom and preserve a calm atmosphere.
A support person can help a self-represented person stay calm and focused. But in some cases their behaviour has been distracting or disruptive. The Guidelines explain that a judge may refuse to allow a support person to sit with a litigant where their presence could be, or becomes, disruptive to the proceedings or would otherwise be unfair to an opposing party. For example, if your new partner and your ex-spouse don’t get along, the judge might not permit your new partner to act as your support person in a family court hearing because it would be disruptive or unfair.
Choosing and Presenting a Courtroom Companion suggests you let the other litigant know in advance that you intend to bring a support person to your trial. You could refer them to the Court’s Guidelines too. By giving them time to learn about support persons and decide whether to bring one themselves, you may avoid objections at the trial.
Can I have a support person at a Small Claims settlement or trial conference, or at a family case conference?
These conferences are usually not held in open courtrooms. They are designed for litigants to discuss possible settlement with a judge’s help. Therefore, the Guidelines don’t authorize support people to attend them.
However, the Guidelines explain that a judge may allow a support person to sit with you in a conference if you ask permission. Usually, a judge will only give permission in a conference if the other party agrees. Still, if the support person is not allowed to be with you in the conference room, you may ask the judge for a break during the conference to speak to them outside the room.
Where can I get more information about Support Persons?
The Court has distributed an illustrated poster to tell people about the Guidelines.
The National Self-Represented Litigants Project website offers the Choosing and Presenting a Courtroom Companion guide and other helpful information. Remember, however, that this guide does not cover a situation like ours, where the Court’s Guidelines permit support persons unless there’s a reason to disallow them.
You can also get information about support groups for self-represented litigants from the National Self-represented Litigants Support Network.
In addition the Court has issued NP11, a ‘Notice to the Profession’ to inform lawyers about the Guidelines.