Legal Costs: Self Representation Challenges

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Legal Costs: Self Representation Challenges


Representing Yourself and Asking for Legal Costs? Read this First

Recently I wrote about a ruling on costs where a self-represented litigant was awarded significantly more in legal costs, than she had requested after trial.

That case, called McMurter v. McMurter, gave the court an opportunity to revisit some of the prior authorities on the issue, and to set out the principles that apply to awarding legal costs to self-represented family litigants.

Based on that review, if you succeed in represented yourself in your family law trial or motion and are looking to be awarded your legal costs from your unsuccessful opponent, here is what you need to know:

  1. Whether you are legally trained or not, you cannot claim the same costs as a lawyer would charge. Instead, you can receive a “moderate” or “reasonable” allowance for your lost time.
  2. Courts recognize that every litigant must prepare for court to some extent, whether represented by lawyer or not. So if you decide to represent yourself, you can only recover for the time and effort above and beyond what an average person would devote to getting ready for the proceeding.
  3. You must also demonstrate that you spent time and effort doing work ordinarily done by a lawyer retained to conduct the litigation, and that you incurred an opportunity cost because of it.
  4. Even if you did not give up remunerative activity to represent yourself in court, the court may award you costs for what would otherwise be lawyer’s work on the case. This means that you can get legal costs even if you are a homemaker, retirees, students, unemployed, unemployable, or disabled, etc.
  5. The quality of your work as a self-represented person will also be a factor in the court’s assessment of what costs you might be awarded.
  6. In terms of the actual fees, courts can vary widely on how they approach the mathematical calculation. Some will award an hourly rate varying from $20 to $150 per hour, minus the time you would have spent on the case if you had a lawyer present. Others have a “rule of thumb” that allows for a certain number of hours of preparation time, and a certain number of hours of trial time.

In any event, the amount must be reasonable, proportional and with the losing party’s expectations.

Returning to the McMurter v. McMurter case, the court applied these principles in awarding the wife her legal costs award of $30,000, even though she had asked for $18,000. It found that she had successfully represented herself in a complex case where there was a lot at stake. She had been exceptionally well-organized and presented her arguments well, and dealt with complicated legal issues and various family legislation. As the court put it, “She did the work of a lawyer in addition to the work expected of her as a litigant.”

For the full text of the decision, see:

McMurter v. McMurter, 2017 ONSC 725 (CanLII)

Main judgment:

McMurter v. McMurter 2016 ONSC 1225 (S.C.J.)

Fong v. Chan, 1999 CanLII 2052 (ON CA)


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