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”).
Alternatively, you can engage a lawyer to represent you (see Legal representation). If you want to find out if a private lawyer can help you and what costs are involved, contact the Law Institute of Victoria’s Find a Lawyer Legal Referral Service (see www.liv.asn.au/find-a-lawyer).
If you cannot afford to hire a private lawyer, contact your local community legal centre (see www.fclc.org.au); they may be able to provide you with free legal advice and representation.
You can also contact Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) as they may be able to represent you – while VLA does not provide free legal representation for all cases, VLA staff can provide information about the law and court procedure (see www.legalaid.vic.gov.au).
In certain circumstances it may be possible for you to not attend court at all; but in many cases you must attend court. You should seek legal advice about this if possible, as you may be disadvantaged if you do not attend court. For example, if you do not attend court while on bail, you could be arrested and charged with breaching your bail undertaking.
Self-representation is permitted in all Victorian courts and tribunals, as well as in the Federal Court and the Federal Circuit Court. (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 criminal matters (under s 328(a) Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic) (“CP Act”)) and in civil matters (under s 100(6)(a) Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 (Vic)).
In tribunals, self-representation is always permitted. In Victoria, the umbrella tribunal is the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). There is also the Commonwealth 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 throughout the whole case. 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 essential to get legal advice for 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. You should only decide 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, then you are in a position to represent yourself. If you 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, or you can access free or low-cost legal representation from a community legal centre, then you should seriously think about having a lawyer represent you.