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In Brief, Do-It-Yourself Lawyers Cite Cost : Justice: Growing numbers of Americans represent themselves in variety of cases.

March 20, 1994|JEFF DONN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — At 8 a.m., the do-it-yourself lawyers begin their unending procession through the cavernous offices of Hampden County's family and probate clerk.

They crack oversized binders of handwritten court records, scratch their scalps, rub their eyes, and pose question after question to overworked clerks behind a 4-foot-high counter.

"'Abuse and threats is not grounds for divorce," a clerk tells a woman staring at a legal form. Another clerk arrives to speak to the woman in Spanish.

"A lot of people have absolutely no idea what to do," says Deborah Hawley, a clerk. "A lot of people come in here angry because they're already frustrated by what's going on in court. They come up here, and they'll yell and scream at us."

The clerks, even if they know the law, are barred from giving legal advice.

But, for better or worse, the hordes of uninitiated standing before them are among the growing legions of Americans forced to depend on their own wits in legal matters. They represent themselves--acting "pro se" in the rarefied Latin terminology of the courts--in divorce cases, custody disputes, small claims court and even full-blown lawsuits.

Some don't think they need a lawyer, some can't find one, and others even believe they are better off without one. But they point overwhelmingly to one deciding factor: Cost.

"I'm broke," said Dawn Monty, a 27-year-old mother of one, as she labored over six divorce and custody forms at the clerk's office. "It's very expensive to get a lawyer for a divorce. My mother went through two of them."

The American Bar Assn. does not keep records on how many Americans act on their own legal behalf. But all agree the numbers have risen dramatically in recent decades.

An ABA study in the Phoenix area found that at least one of the parties was acting pro se in 24% of 1980 divorce cases. Ten years later, that figure had soared to 88%.

Judges and lawyers attribute such increases to the streamlining of divorce law in some states and a proliferation of do-it-yourself legal kits, an explosion of custody battles and requests for restraining orders, broader jurisdiction for some small claims courts, Reagan-era cuts in government-funded legal counsel for poor people, and escalating lawyers' fees.

Some self-taught lawyers, although acknowledging legal costs as a motivation, contend they can do better work than real lawyers anyway.

"These guys forget. I'm on top of everything," said Melvin Brown, a 63-year-old retired firefighter.

Brown, who quit high school after the ninth grade but later gained an equivalency diploma, is representing himself in a 15-year-old legal dispute over his union fees with the city of Chicopee, Mass. During that time, he has filed lawsuits all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and even argued verbally in state Supreme Court, doing research at a local law library and occasionally turning to a lawyer friend for informal advice.

Not content with previous mixed decisions, he is now suing the city for $1.5 million.

Brown estimates that he would have paid about $100,000 if he had allowed lawyers to do his work. "I could never have afforded what I've been through. The average person can't afford it either," he said.

Donna Burns, who has fought the government in court over her son's brain damage that she blames on mandatory childhood vaccinations, said a lawyer could not match her personal commitment.

"I'm not looking at this case as one case in 100. This is my son--my son," she said.

But many reluctant pro se lawyers are clearly lost in the maze of petitions, pleadings, judgments, statutes, dockets, jurisdictions and courtrooms.

"When I have any project at home that requires more than a hammer, a nail and a screwdriver, I call a carpenter. Sometimes it's important to call a lawyer," said William Kelly, a small claims judge in Kentwood, Mich.

David G. Sacks, a family judge in Springfield, is troubled by the train of poverty-stricken pro se lawyers who trudge through his courtroom. For them, it's no hobby, but the only alternative to lawyers with fees starting about $100 an hour.

"It's not a surprise that people who have trouble paying for a mortgage, groceries, rent and heat are having trouble paying for a lawyer," he said. "My greatest concern is . . . people coming in here who are unable to enforce their rights."

The number of cases with pro se parties in Hampden probate and family court has swelled to 50%, according to Thomas Moriarty Jr., the register of probate. His office and some others around the state have set up volunteer lawyer-for-a-day programs to offer free, informal legal advice.

James Martin, a high-powered corporate attorney, spent one recent day at the Hampden Family Court offices advising pro se parents and spouses, including a woman seeking a restraining order against her ex-husband for an alleged attack on her fiance in the courthouse that very day.

"We've been through a box of Kleenex in here--half a dozen people bawling their eyes out," Martin said with a weary smile.

But volunteer lawyers can help only a small percentage of those in need.

In a recent report, an ABA panel proposed easier-to-understand legal forms, administrative divorces without judges in uncontested cases, special after-hour court sessions and courthouse day care, and encouraging lawyers to provide limited advice for a fee without insisting on taking over an entire case.

The Arizona Supreme Court undertook a pilot project last year in three cities where it placed courthouse computer booths that teach a person to fill out divorce forms or eviction notices in either English or Spanish--and then print out the completed forms.

"We know how well it's running because not one person has had to ask any of the court staff at the pilot sites for help," said Lynn Wiletsky, manager of the project.

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