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A Growing US Legal Trend: Self-Representation - 2001-08-29


Legal experts say there's a new trend in American jurisprudence: increasing numbers of people with legal troubles are representing themselves rather than hiring a lawyer. It's called pro se litigation.

"Pro stands for for and se is self from Latin, and that's a legal term that means 'when somebody represents him or herself in court,'" explains Carl Frederick, the president of the American Pro Se Association, the largest pro se advocacy group in the United States. The non-profit organization is based in Plainfield, New Jersey. It charges small fees and also relies on donations from members, who are usually pro se litigants.

pro se cases generally involve civil matters, such as divorce and cases involving creditors and foreclosures. Self-representation in criminal matters is rare.

According to Mr. Frederick, most pro se cases generally have one thing in common. The litigants can't afford a lawyer. "Walk into a lawyer's office, he may say, 'Give me a $5,000 to 10,000 retainer up front - and then I'll bill you every month or week, whatever, for the added hours.' You could easily run a $30,000 to 300,000 bill. We see those cases all the time. It wipes people out."

The American Pro Se Association says it handles about 850 new cases a week and has helped a total of 100,000 people represent themselves since it opened its offices seven years ago. For instance, the organization recommends the kinds of books to buy to pursue pro se litigation or where to find a lawyer for limited, inexpensive advice.

The exact number of pro se litigants nationwide is unclear, but experts say that in recent years, the increase in legal self-help is unmistakable.

Nolo Press of Berkeley, California, is the world's largest publisher of legal handbooks for the layman. A spokeswoman says the company sold more than 550,000 books last year, a ten percent increase in two years.

The National Center for State Courts is a research group in Williamsburg, Virginia. A spokeswoman says that as many as 90 percent of domestic relations court cases involve at least one pro se litigant.

Pamela Schvey, a 47-year-old divorced mother of two decided to represent herself in court. Her former husband was paying only a fraction of the child support he'd agreed to. She took that issue and other divorce-related financial disputes to court pro se.

"I had no choice," she said. "I literally had no choice. It was kind of like a mother tiger trying to protect her cubs. If I didn't [go pro se], I wouldn't have anything for my children. Believe, me, if I could have afforded an attorney, I would have."

Ms. Schvey says her first pro se court experience went badly. "Excuse the expression, but the judge kicked my derriere all over the court," she explained. "I didn't know the process. And I didn't understand the process."

Pamela Schvey found out about the American Pro Se Association, got advice from their experts, studied suggested law books, and went back to court. She continues to have residual legal problems connected with the divorce. And she goes to court pro se.

"When I go into court now, I don't have a problem, and when the other side is saying something that is not correct, I'll say 'objection.' Or trying to bring up something that's not in the file," she says. "I make sure my papers are backed up with documentation that just knocks your socks off. I just don't want to lose when I go on. I make every effort to make my case nailed down tightly before I go in."

Nonetheless, a majority of pro se litigants lose their court cases because, in most cases, they run up against experienced attorneys.

Mary Ryan is an official with the American Bar Association (ABA), which represents the nation's 400,000 lawyers. She points out that in many communities there are affordable attorneys.

"There are, in fact, a broad variety of different practices in which you find lawyers across America," she says. "For every lawyer who might work in a large firm, whose primary clients are corporations who can afford higher fees, there are many, many solo and small firm-lawyers who work in communities, and I think lawyers may be more affordable than people know."

Ms. Ryan, who is chairman of the ABA Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, acknowledges that the number of pro se litigants is increasing and says the organization is reaching out to provide them with services. "One of the major projects of my committee is a legal web site called findlegalhelp.org," she says. "We hope it will be a starting place for a consumer who wants to know either how to find a lawyer or make a decision about whether they need a lawyer. So they can come to this web page and get referrals to legal aid programs in their area. There's a trend toward self help in this country and we need to facilitate that if we're going to continue to have public trust and confidence in our courts and in our justice system."

According to Mary Ryan of the American Bar Association, many courts and some state bar associations also offer litigants legal advice in courthouses. Informed self-representation appears to be in the interest of the legal profession, as well as to individuals who can't afford a lawyer.

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