Did you know?
You have a court hearing coming up and you’re representing yourself. It no doubt feels daunting. Fortunately, you don’t have to go on your own. Learn about taking a support person with you to court.
What you should know
“I represented myself at a two-day trial. My friend Emma sat beside me in the courtroom. She was such a big help. She took notes and passed me documents, gave me words of encouragement when I needed them, and kept me calm throughout. I was so glad the judge agreed I could have a support person.”
– Maeve, Penticton, BC
Court hearings can be stressful. If you’re representing yourself, you may be nervous about going to court on your own. The good news is that you can have a trusted friend or support person with you, unless a judge decides otherwise (more on this in a moment).
Your support person doesn’t have to have any special training or qualifications. They can be anyone, including a friend or relative. They can’t be someone who might be a witness at the hearing though. They also can’t be someone you pay to be your support person. (In BC, your support person is not allowed to charge a fee.)
Support persons are also known as McKenzie friends
Support persons are sometimes called courtroom companions or McKenzie friends. McKenzie comes from a 1970 divorce case in Britain, McKenzie v. McKenzie. It established that a person who’s representing themselves can ask a judge to allow a support person to sit with them during their court hearing.
Both the BC Provincial Court and Supreme Court allow you, if you don’t have a lawyer, to ask to have a support person sit with you at the front of the courtroom in civil and family court hearings. Generally, judges welcome support persons, but not always.
For example, if the presence of a support person could be or becomes disruptive to the proceeding or would otherwise be unfair to an opposing party, a judge may refuse to allow a support person to sit with you.
As well, the Provincial Court guidelines set out some exceptions. While a support person can attend a small claims trial or hearing, they can’t attend a small claims court settlement conference or trial conference. They also can’t attend a family case conference or settlement conference. That’s because these conferences are not usually held in open courtrooms. They are private meetings with a judge that are meant to help parties in a court case talk about settlement.
Your support person can be a great source of moral and practical support. They can sit beside you at the front of the courtroom. They can help you take notes, locate documents, and keep an eye on what’s happening in the courtroom. They can make occasional quiet suggestions to you. Below we go into more detail on ways they can help you.
But your support person can’t act as your lawyer. They can’t give you legal advice. If you want someone knowledgeable about the law to help you, it’s a good idea to get a lawyer.
A support person also can’t speak directly to the judge or speak to the court on your behalf — except in special circumstances. If you have a disability or difficulties with language, or if you are experiencing mental health issues, for instance, a judge might allow your support person to speak for you.
If you want your support person to be able to talk to the court for you, you’ll need to ask the judge for permission before the court hearing. Judges can exercise their discretion and make an exception depending on the circumstances of the case. Every judge is different, as is every case. If the judge denies your request, you need to be ready to speak for yourself.
Steps to bring a support person to court
For many, having someone sit beside them at the front of the courtroom sounds like a great idea. But consider your skills and whether you actually need help. Are you someone who’s organized and likes being in charge? Do you like reading and writing and dealing with paperwork? If so, you may not need a support person and may actually find them distracting.
On the other hand, you might be nervous about going to court on your own. You might be less stressed and anxious if you have help from a trusted friend or relative at the hearing. Having a second set of eyes and ears beside you might be exactly what you need to stay calm and focused.
Worksheet to help you decide
To help you decide whether you need a support person, you may want to use this worksheet from the National Self-Represented Litigants Project. It walks you through questions to ask yourself.
Once you’ve decided you want a support person to help you, who should you choose? The answer will depend on the characteristics and skills of your potential support person, the type of case you’re involved in, and who is available to you to ask.
Qualities to look for in your support person
When choosing a support person, you want to pick someone who:
is calm and level-headed in stressful situations
is organized, reliable, and capable
has time to help you
you trust with your personal information
will respect your privacy
isn't in conflict with the other party
Keep in mind that a lot of information will come out in court. Some of it may be surprising or even hurtful, and it could affect your relationship with the person who’s there to support you. If that might be the case, instead of a close friend or relative, consider choosing someone who’s more detached. At the very least, you should discuss in advance with your support person this possibility of unpleasant surprises.
Never choose someone who has a personal or political agenda or an ax to grind with the court system or the other party. This can create a distraction and ultimately hurt your case.
The type of case you’re involved in
Say you’re involved in a family law dispute with your ex. In this case, you may not want, say, your parent to be your support person. They may be overly emotional, especially when there are children involved.
Who is available to you to ask
If there isn’t a friend or family member you can ask to be your support person, consider reaching out to a community member. You could ask someone at your place of worship, a community support worker, or another professional.
Whomever you choose, your support person should not be a distraction. They should help you stay calm and focused during your court hearing.
You can have more than one support person
You may decide to have two, for example. One could be a good writer who could help you with the paperwork. Another could go with you to court. But you can only have one support person sit beside you during the court hearing. Any others can sit in the public seating area of the courtroom.
Your support person can help you get ready for court. First off, they can simply be there for you — to listen, to talk to, to reassure you, especially if you’re stressed.
More practically, they can also:
come with you to an appointment with a lawyer to get legal advice (as long as the lawyer agrees they can sit in)
read and go over written material with you
come with you to watch a court hearing in the days or weeks before your own to help give you an idea of what to expect
help you problem-solve and figure out next steps
When you’re preparing for court, you’ll be filling out court forms, researching, and writing out what you plan to ask the other party and say to the judge about your case. If your support person is a good communicator who likes to read and write, they can help you with all of that. They can also help you prepare your presentation to the court, making sure that it’s clear and covers all the important points.
At the beginning of the hearing, you must let the judge know that a support person is with you. If you want your support person to sit with you at the front of the courtroom, you need to ask for the judge’s permission. Here’s a presentation template you can use to prepare your pitch to the judge.
During the hearing, your support person can help you by:
providing emotional support
keeping an eye on what’s happening in the courtroom and on the judge’s body language
making quiet suggestions to you
If there are breaks during the court proceeding, your support person can go over your presentation with you. They can reassure you while also noting things you may have left out or points you should clarify.
You decide what your support person does
Your support person doesn’t have to do all of these things. You can ask them for help with one or more tasks. You’ll need to decide on the role you want your support person to play.
Yes. If you’d like your support person to sit beside you at the front of the courtroom, you have to ask the court for permission before your hearing starts. It’s not an absolute right.
When asking the court for permission, reassure the judge that your support person knows the court’s guidelines for support persons. That is, they’ll be quiet and respectful and won’t speak directly to the court themselves. You can use this presentation template from the National Self-Represented Litigants Project to help you prepare your request to the judge.
The judge may ask the other party if they object to your support person. If you told the other party before the court appearance, they won’t be surprised and may not object. On the other hand, they may object whether you’ve notified them beforehand or not. Either way, try to anticipate what they might say and have a reasonable response ready. Your response should include an explanation of why it’s important that you have a support person attend with you.
Generally, judges welcome support persons. But not always. Ultimately, the judge in your case makes the final decision. If a judge denies your request, you’ll need to be prepared to present on your own.
The main role of a support person is to help you be calm, clear, and organized during the court proceeding. If the judge believes that your support person could be disruptive, they can refuse your request. Being disruptive could mean talking loudly, making sounds (like laughing or sighing loudly, for example), or acting in other ways that a judge finds distracting. It’s behavior that can hamper the judge’s ability to maintain control of the proceedings and ensure fairness.
The judge may also refuse your request if having your support person present would be unfair to the other party. This might come up if your support person has a history of conflict with the other party. Say you’ve asked your new partner to be your support person in your family law case involving your ex. You know that the two of them don’t get along and there have been some unpleasant exchanges. In that situation, it may be inappropriate for your new partner to be your support person.
Some other reasons why a judge may decide against the support person you’ve chosen include:
your support person is under 19 years of age
your support person is visibly aggressive or unwell
you’re asking they be permitted to attend a private meeting between the parties, such as a settlement conference
If you anticipate trouble with having your support person accepted, it’s a good idea to prepare your pitch to the judge in advance. Think about how you would explain your decision to the judge. (There may be factors in your choice that the judge isn’t aware of and that you want the judge to know.) You’ll also need to reassure the judge that your support person knows the guidelines and won’t be a distraction.
A judge is less likely to allow someone with legal training to be your support person. They may be concerned that a lawyer or paralegal will give you legal advice (even unintentionally), which is not allowed.
If you really want your cousin (let's call him Franco), who’s a lawyer, to be your support person, you’ll have to explain your choice to the judge at the hearing. It’s important that you tell the judge that:
Franco is not representing you as a lawyer
you aren’t paying him
he’s not giving you legal advice
he’s there for moral support and to help you stay organized and focused
If you and Franco have always been close (even before he became a lawyer), or if Franco practices a completely different area of law, you should explain that to the judge as well. All of these reasons can help to reassure the judge that Franco is there as your support person only, not your legal representative.
Who can help
National Self-Represented Litigants Project
Access Pro Bono's Free Legal Advice
Access Pro Bono’s Everyone Legal Clinic
Lawyer Referral Service
BC Legal Directory