Can you defend yourself without a lawyer?

As envisaged in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in criminal law, any person accused of a crime has the right to representation by an attorney of his or her choosing. As this refers to a right, rather than an obligation, accused persons may also opt to represent themselves.

You may be wondering what procedural rules apply in this particular situation and, more importantly, whether it’s a good idea to defend yourself without a lawyer. Let’s take a closer look.

When and how to appear before a judge without an attorney

It’s altogether possible for people to defend themselves in court without a lawyer, whether in civil, family or criminal cases. This happens most commonly when filing for divorce, alimony or child support or in the event of a civil action or criminal prosecution. However, if you’re appearing in court on behalf of a company or an organization, an attorney must accompany you.

Going to court without a lawyer is no simple matter, as it requires careful preparation to ensure that you’ve mastered every aspect of your defense, especially when the accusations could have a major impact on your life, as is often the case in criminal law. Consequently, you must be able to do the following:

  • Understand and lay out your case
  • Comprehend the relevant legal texts and jargon
  • Negotiate and confer with the prosecution
  • Draft procedural documents
  • Prepare your case for trial
  • Question and cross-examine witnesses

Rights and responsibilities when defending yourself without an attorney

Defending yourself doesn’t mean that you’ll be alone during the proceedings. After all, you have the right to a fair trial. In order protect your rights, the judge must ensure that the prosecution doesn’t take advantage of the situation. Specifically, he or she must explain to you the overall procedure, the different phases it entails and the methods of carrying it out. This doesn’t amount to giving you a course in law, but rather simply ensuring that you understand the ins and outs of the process.

On the other hand, in the interests of fairness to the other party, the judge may not do the following:

  • Assume the role of an attorney
  • Advise you or show any favoritism toward you
  • Diminish the impact of any evidence related to your case
  • Acquit you of your legal obligations
  • Present evidence or question witnesses on your behalf

If at any point over the course of the proceedings you realize that defending yourself is too complicated or that your inexperience could work against you, you can change your mind and hire a lawyer. The judge may even require that you do so if it becomes obvious that the proceedings cannot progress properly without an attorney representing you.

Appearing in court without a lawyer: possible, but difficult

If you sincerely want to represent yourself, whether for financial or other reasons, you have the right to do so, but you should be aware that you also have the right to consult an attorney for advice. Bear in mind that lawyers have the necessary training to ascertain the critical points of your case, understand the applicable rules and documents and summon the appropriate witnesses.

No matter what you decide, the team at the law offices of criminal attorney Martine Thibodeau is ready to help, guiding and supporting you with empathy, honesty and transparency regarding the costs associated with your case.
Source: Gouvernement du Québec. Agir seul devant la cour [Appearing alone before the court]. 2023.

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