More people representing themselves

HARRY PEARL
Last updated 05:00 02/09/2013

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Te Kawa dairy farmer Hamish Burdon took a slightly unconventional route into legal representation, but it's a path one researcher says is becoming increasingly common among New Zealanders.

In 2003, Burdon was forced to represent himself in a custody dispute for the shared parenting rights of his two children.

"I couldn't afford a lawyer so I chose to represent myself," said Burdon, 42.

He had no legal training and no familiarity with the court system. He won his case.

It was a galvanising experience and one that ultimately lead him to study post-graduate law at the University of Waikato.

"I'm a farmer by trade and I now also represent people in employment law," he said.

Burdon is among what is said to be a growing number of people representing themselves in New Zealand's civil courts.

Although there are no official figures available, Hamilton doctoral student Bridgette Toy-Cronin told the Times anecdotal evidence suggests numbers are rising.

"It's widely thought within the system - the judges and the court staff - that the numbers are rising.

"That would make sense because legal aid has been cut back and there was a recession on, so people were less able to have an income to pay for a lawyer."

And when the Government's Family Court Proceedings Reform Bill becomes law, she said, almost everyone will be required to be self-represented in the early stages of Family Court proceedings.

Toy-Cronin, who is researching self-represented litigants in New Zealand's civil courts for her doctoral degree, hopes her research will provide better outcomes not just for individuals representing themselves, but the court system in general.

"There's a gaping hole there as far as New Zealand research on the topic goes," she said.

While working as a litigator she had come across several people representing themselves. "It's quite hard to litigate against someone who doesn't really know the rules of engagement."

Some of the challenges facing people representing themselves were difficulty understanding court procedures, how to advance their cases and the details of the law.

But for Burdon, the hardest part was keeping emotion out of proceedings.

"The old saying is: a good lawyer is one that can keep the emotion out of it. Well, when you're representing yourself, you can't."

Toy-Cronin has been in touch with about 35 self-represented litigants from throughout the country for her research, but said she was looking for others.

"I'm really looking for Hamilton people to be part of that so I can get to know them a bit more and understand their case in a bit more detail."

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- Waikato Times

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