This chapter provides basic information and advice for people who are required to attend a court or tribunal for a hearing to which they are a party.
Self-representation: If you are one of the parties, you can choose to appear “in person” and present your own case (referred to in this chapter as “self-representation”).
Engage a lawyer: Alternatively, you can engage a lawyer to represent you (see Legal representation). If you cannot afford to hire a private lawyer, contact your local community legal centre (a list of Victoria’s legal centres is available at www.communitylaw.org.au); they may be able to provide you with free legal advice and representation. You can also contact Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) – while VLA does not provide free legal representation for all cases, VLA staff can provide information about the law and court procedure. (See “Victoria Legal Aid” in Legal services that can help.)
Don’t attend court: In certain circumstances it may be possible for you to not attend court at all. You should seek legal advice before choosing this option as you may be disadvantaged if you do not attend. If you do not attend court while on bail, you could be charged with breaching your bail undertaking.
Self-representation is permitted in Victorian courts. (For more information about the different courts, and the types of cases heard in them, see An introduction to the courts.)
In the Magistrates’ Court, self-representation is permitted in both criminal matters (under s 328(a) Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic) (“CP Act”)), and civil matters (under s 100(6)(a) Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 (Vic)).
In this chapter, the word “tribunal” refers to both Commonwealth tribunals and VCAT.
In tribunals, self-representation is always permitted. In Victoria, the umbrella tribunal is the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
There are also various Commonwealth tribunals – most of which have been amalgamated with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. In some civil and criminal cases, where family violence or sexual offences are involved, you may not be allowed to represent yourself. This is because certain witnesses are “protected” – meaning only a lawyer who has no relationship with the witness is allowed to question them in court. The court may say that you have to have a lawyer to question (“cross-examine”) them on your behalf. (For this reason it is absolutely essential to get legal advice early in these types of cases.)
It is critical to decide as soon as possible whether or not you will present your own case to the court or tribunal. This decision should be made only after carefully considering your options, and after you have found out what is involved in representing yourself.
To find out what is involved, visit the relevant court or tribunal to see how hearings are conducted. Almost all are open to the public. It may be useful to observe the hearing of a case similar to yours. If you do not have time to do this, it is unlikely that you will have time to prepare your case properly.
After you have found out what is involved in representing yourself, weigh up what is at stake and ask yourself whether you:
•have the time to properly prepare your case;
•have the skills to talk about and argue the case before the opposing party and at the hearing of the case;
•have the capacity to remain clear-headed in the face of difficult decisions and to make decisions under pressure that are in your best interests.
If you answer yes to these questions when you know what is involved, then you are in a position to represent yourself. If your answer no, do not be too hard on yourself; self-representation is challenging. If you can afford to pay a lawyer or you qualify for legal aid funding, then you should seriously think about having a lawyer represent you.