More people forgo lawyers, represent themselves

Courts concerned about trend

Billy Williams already had spent $7,000 on attorney fees getting a divorce when he decided to act as his own lawyer for a custody dispute involving his 13-year-old son.

Williams figured he could save this time around by representing himself, but he left the courtroom feeling frustrated after Cobb County Superior Court Judge Lark Ingram interrupted him several times for not following proper court procedures.

The judge granted primary custody to his ex-wife. Williams felt he was at a disadvantage because his wife had an attorney; he didn’t.

“She had the upper hand; there is no doubt,” Williams said. “I’m sure the judge kind of went in her favor because of the lawyer.”

State court judges across the country report that more people like Williams are acting as their own attorneys in civil matters. The trend is a cause of concern for a judiciary that is having to become more efficient because of state budget cuts. State funding to the courts in 2009 was at its lowest level in recent history. County and municipal governments also have frozen or cut court funding in the wake of declining tax revenue.

Court officials say self-represented litigants tend to slow proceedings and use more staff time.

“It’s a huge issue with judicial economy and use of the court’s time,” said Fulton County Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane. “It is difficult to mete out justice when there are two people not providing an orderly presentation, but trying to get their barbs in. Cross-examination gets reduced to ‘No, I didn’t,’ and ‘Yes, I did.’ ”

It’s unknown exactly how many more people are handling their own cases, because state courts don’t track those statistics, said Mike Holiman, executive director of the Council of Superior Court Clerks of Georgia.

However, a survey released in July by the American Bar Association found that 60 percent of judges said the number of self-represented cases increased in 2009. The survey, which 1,176 judges took, was intended to gauge the impact of the economy on the courts. Georgia had the highest participation, with 124 judges responding.

The most common types of cases in which self-representation is growing are domestic relations, common law, foreclosures and housing.

People acting as their own lawyers often fail to ensure both parties receive the necessary notification and paperwork, and they commit procedural errors, said Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy.

Gwinnett County State Court Judge Randy Rich said, “When it comes down to a trial, they don’t know the rules of evidence to get their documents admitted, and they don’t know the way to present whatever they want to present.”

In cases where someone had no legal representation, 62 percent of judges surveyed by the ABA said outcomes for the litigant were worse.

When a person shows up at the courthouse without a lawyer, clerks who file cases and judges who hear them are put into the position of guiding an unschooled party through a complex legal system. They must somehow do this without doling out any legal advice.

“Our members, particularly the people on the front counter, are not lawyers,” said Holiman, referring to court clerks. “We are cautious about practicing law without a license, which you can get into very quickly if you start assisting [self-represented] litigants.”

By the same token, judges’ hands are bound because they are supposed to be impartial.

People charged with a crime who cannot afford an attorney are entitled to have a defense attorney appointed to their case free of charge. However, the Constitution does not guarantee the same rights in civil cases except in a few cases where a person would risk loss of liberty (such as mental commitment or juvenile delinquency cases).

There are some options for people facing economic hardship, but there is no perfect solution.

Atlanta Legal Aid’s executive director, Steve Gottlieb, said uncontested divorces often can be handled by individuals without a lawyer. But he would not advise handling a divorce or child custody dispute if it is contentious or it involves a complicated division of property. Foreclosures also are an area where people can quickly get in over their heads. Without a lawyer’s help, a resident easily can lose his home or become a victim of a scam, Gottlieb said.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society serves Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties. Last year, the organization handled 24,636 cases. However, because of the organization’s limited resources, about half of the people who ask for assistance are turned away, Gottlieb said.

If somebody is able to handle a case himself or herself, Legal Aid lawyers may provide this person with needed forms or give him or her a brief legal consultation instead of agreeing to represent. They also provide referrals to the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, another organization that does pro bono work for low-income people.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society prioritizes cases where the person is particularly vulnerable to domestic violence, disability or illness. They are less likely to get involved if there is little chance of obtaining an economic benefit for the client.

DeKalb and Fulton have Family Law Information Centers that are county-funded to assist people in domestic legal matters. Fulton also has a Probate Information Center to help people with issues surrounding wills and estates.

Miriam Loyal, who heads the Family Law Information Center in DeKalb, said a 30-minute consultation with a lawyer costs $20, and obtaining relevant forms costs from $5 to $20.

The Superior Court of Cobb County has worked with local attorneys to offer a free, hourlong Family Law Workshop on the first Tuesday of each month for people with domestic legal issues.

Several other Georgia counties, such as Chatham and Bibb, are looking into starting a program modeled after the one in Cobb, said Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley, who helped start the Family Law Workshop.

“Feedback we’re getting from judges in the courtrooms is that it’s helping,” Staley said.

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