Like most law schools, at Adelaide we worry about the mental well being of our students, and hope they will grow into resilient and happy professionals. Sadly, statistics still show that there is a very high level of depression anxiety and mental unwellness in the legal profession.
But it’s not just lawyers! Students doing their Clinical Legal Education placement at the Magistrates Court Legal Advice Service provide day to day legal support to unrepresented litigants in the Magistrates Court. They soon realise that the stress and anxiety experienced by people who are representing themselves in court is even higher than that experienced by students and lawyers.
Student James D’Alessandro explains : “As the President of the AULSS in 2017 I have had a really strong commitment to mental wellbeing for law students, and I originaly planned a guide to support lawyers to manage the stress of advocacy in their early careers. Working at MCLAS for my CLE placement I realised that self represented litigants suffered more stress and anxiety in litigation than lawyers, because it’s a completely foreign environment and the stakes are so high. So my fellow students and I at MCLAS came together and switched the focus to people involved in litigation, so that they can better navigate this very stressful time. I believe that initiatives like this will have ongoing relevance as there are more and more people representing themselves in the courts around Australia, and if they are to get real justice access, this sort of support is critical.”
Most people have almost no life experience of courts or legal process. At best they’ve seen a bit of court room drama on TV or heard horror stories from friends or family.
There is a lot more to going to court than most people realise. Parties have to draft court documents, gather evidence, prepare arguments, try to negotiate with the other side, and try to explain their problems to a Magistrate or Judge. They might have to appear in court several times before trial.
And then there’s the law – at the best of times it is complex and requires a level of understanding that most people don’t possess. They end up confused and frustrated.
Final year law students James D’Alessandro, Nadia Markov, Danielle Schultz, Kate Strachan, and Henry Yin-Chen decided to produce a booklet to help support people representing themselves. Aimed at demystifying the process, the booklet provides great advice about managing the stress of litigation, and injecting some realism into decision making.
” Working on this booklet highlighted the importance of non-legal considerations in deciding whether to pursue litigation. Ensuring that each party has a support network and access to legal and counselling services is paramount in maintaining mental well-being. Furthermore this experience emphasized the importance of using language and content that is understandable to those unfamiliar with the law. I worked with the publication designer and developed a product that I think will help self-represented litigants navigate the complex court procedures, and guide them through the emotions of litigation. I am very proud to have been able to make a direct and meaningful contribution to the community as part of my CLE placement. This hands-on experience has taught me the practical realities faced by self-represented litigants, and given me an appreciation of the difficulties faced by those who are unfamiliar with the legal process.” Student Kate Strachan.
In his forward to the guide book, Chief Justice Chris Kourakis acknowledges the need for resources to support self represented litigants in court.
“Anxiety and other emotions undermine the logical, thorough and lateral thinking which are required to resolve legal disputes whether by negotiation and mediation or judicial adjudication ….whilst all litigation is different, this booklet forewarns litigants in person broadly what to expect in court
and helps them recognise and rationalise their emotional reaction to the process.”
Congratulations to our MCLAS students who provided many hours of free legal advice to unrepresented litigants in the magistrate court, and made a lasting contribution to supporting self represented litigants in the future.
For a copy of the booklet please email: