While you may want to represent yourself in a case before a civil court or tribunal – or you may be forced to do so for financial reasons – there are a number of important issues to consider.
It is important to know whether or not you may have to pay the other side’s legal costs if you lose the case; this should be an important factor in deciding whether to go ahead with your case.
In civil courts and some tribunals, the losing party is likely to be ordered to pay the legal costs of the successful party. In some situations (especially in the Magistrates’ Court), these legal costs can be more than the amount involved in the dispute. Therefore, before deciding to pursue a case in court, you should get objective advice on the strength of your case (see Legal services that can help).
VCAT does not award costs except in the specific circumstances outlined in section 109 of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 1998 (Vic).
The Social Security and Child Support Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is a cost-free jurisdiction, meaning the tribunal has no power to award costs and each party is expected to pay their own costs. (See Dealing with social security and Appealing government and administrative decisions.)
The legal system (especially the courts) is designed to have lawyers represent the parties involved in a dispute. Although, some tribunals encourage self-representation, or even place limits on the types of cases in which lawyers can appear. Note that the procedures and rules used by different courts and tribunals vary significantly.
If you plan to represent yourself, make sure you get advice from a lawyer on what you have to do before your case is heard and what to expect at the hearing (see Legal services that can help).
Also, Justice Connect offers a self-representation service to assist people who are representing themselves (see https://justiceconnect.org.au/our-services/self-rep-service). In particular, help is available for people who are self-representing in jurisdictions such as the Federal Court and Federal Circuit Court, and for those with civil law issues such as bankruptcy and employment law where the availability of free and low-cost legal representation is limited and the rules and procedures can be complex and difficult to navigate.
You should also speak to the staff of the relevant court or tribunal. They can inform you of any special rules and time limits relating to documents that must be prepared. It is important to comply with these rules: if the case is adjourned because you have failed to prepare the documents properly and on time, you might have to pay the other party’s legal costs.
Make sure you understand what sort of help is available from the court staff; for instance, they can advise on procedures, but cannot tell you how to argue your case (e.g. see “Magistrates’ Court registrars” in How legal aid can help).
If the staff at the court or tribunal are unwilling to assist you, you should explain politely and firmly that you need help and that you expect them to provide it. Also ask whether it is possible for you to observe other cases running in the same court or tribunal, as this will give you a good idea of what is likely to happen in your case.