Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Courts Without Lawyers.

Because of high legal fees, many litigants are being forced to represent themselves.

When Danielle Nitzel found her 3-year-old marriage drawing its last breath in 2004, she couldn't afford the minimum of a $1,000.00 retainer fee she was told she would need to hire a divorce lawyer.

So she did what more and more Americans are doing: She represented herself in court.

"I looked online and just tried to figure out how to write out the paperwork," said Nitzel, a nursing student who at the time had little money and a pile of education loans. "I think it cost us $100 to file it ourselves."

The number of people serving as their own lawyers is on the rise across the country, and the cases are no longer limited to uncontested divorces and small claims. Even people embroiled in child custody cases, potentially devastating lawsuits and bankruptcies are representing themselves, legal experts say.

"It's not just that poor people can't afford lawyers. This is really a middle-class phenomenon," said Sue Talia, a judge from Danville, California, and author of Unbundling Your Divorce: How to Find a Lawyer to Help You Help Yourself.

The trend has resulted in court systems clogged with filings from people unfamiliar with legal procedure. Moreover, some of these pro se litigants, as they are known, are making mistakes with expensive and long-lasting consequences — perhaps confirming the saying that he who represents himself has a fool for a client.

Paul Merritt, a district judge in Lancaster County, Neb., said he knows of cases in which parents lost custody disputes because they were too unfamiliar with such legal standards as burden of proof.

Custody cases have pitfalls
"There is a lot on the line when you have a custody case," Merritt said. "There are a lot of things that judges take into consideration in determining what's in the best interest of the child, and if you're a pro se litigant, the chances that you will know what those things are, and that you will present evidence of all those issues, are really small."

While the fees lawyers charge vary widely, the average hourly rate ranges from $180 to $285 in the Midwest, and from $260 to more than $400 on the West Coast, according to legal consultant Altman Weil Inc.

Tim Eckley of the American Judicature Society in Des Moines, Iowa, said no national figures are kept on how many people represent themselves, "but I don't think anybody who's involved in the courts would deny that this is a growing trend in the last 10 to 15 years."

In California, about 80 percent represent themselves in civil family law cases — such as divorce, custody and domestic violence cases — according to the Self-Represented Litigation Network.

In Nebraska in 2003, 13,295 people represented themselves in civil cases in state courts. By 2007, the number had risen to 32,016, or 45 percent.

The result?

"Courts are absolutely inundated with people who do not understand the procedures," Talia said. "It is a disaster for high-volume courts, because an inordinate amount of their clerks' time is spent trying to make sure that the procedures are correctly followed."

Talia has traveled to nearly every state to speak to lawyers, judges and court workers about measures to handle the growing number of people representing themselves.

Many states offer self-help Web sites or desks at court offices that offer legal forms for such things as simple divorces.

The legal profession may not like the trend but realizes it is here to stay, and has gotten behind the effort. The American Bar Association is encouraging states to set up self-help desks and adopt standard forms.

Also, a majority of states have amended attorney ethics rules to promote a growing practice known as "unbundling," in which a lawyer handles just part of a contract, divorce or other litigation for a small fee, rather than taking on the entire case.

1 comment:

ichbinalj said...

4my2sons wrote:

My divorce in Michigan is 7 years old, the female attorneys and judge who represented my ex-spouse is still on a crusade to destroy every aspect of my life and my 2 minor sons. When the original female judge "retired", the newly elected female judge just went along with what the other one had started. The amount of money that has been spent on this divorce could have put at least 6 children through private school and college and probably even law school. The attorneys which I have hired and payed thousands of dollars to have made a relatively benign domestic violence divorce case into a near international event. My advice is to do it on your own, file the motions, and stand up for yourself. It is not easy and judges do not like dealing with non-attorneys, but if you complain or report or grieve a decision be prepared for a "war", it makes those court folks real angry and uptight if their way of doing things is upset by a non attorney or a mom fighting to protect herself and her children from the abuses they inflict upon me. Thank God not all attorneys are in the business to make money off of someone else's heartache.