States Find Novel Ways to Help Do-It-Yourself Litigants
NEW YORK (ANS) -- At the U.S. Courthouse downtown, Vincent Sombrotto stood at Window 32, an information desk for people who need help navigating the judicial system by themselves. Sombrotto, 38, didn't have an attorney, but that wasn't stopping him from suing the International Teamsters Union. They had unfairly fired him from his job as president of his local 966, he said, and he wanted his day in court: "I feel I didn't get a fair hearing. I want my job back. I want to be able to be a Teamster again. I want my back pay." Like Sombrotto, an increasing number of Americans are going lawyer-less into the civil courts, representing themselves, usually without any training in the law. Legal experts say the trend has come about largely because of high lawyer's fees and cutbacks over the past few years in federal funding for legal service programs for the poor. This increasing number of self-represented has left many courts scrambling to find ways to deal with them. At the federal courthouse, Sombrotto wasn't sure if he was ready to move ahead in his case against the Teamsters, which fired him from his job at Local 966 in Manhattan. The clerk helped him interpret the other side's papers, then said, "Tell them (the Teamsters) you are ready to proceed." While New York is among 79 federal district courts nationwide that currently have clerks assigned to help people without lawyers, the vast bulk of the self-represented move through the state courts. At the state level various creative ways of coping with the overload and helping the do-it-yourself litigants are being tried out. Maricopa County, Ariz., has installed interactive computer kiosks resembling ATM machines in several courthouses. Known as "QuickCourt," the kiosk's computer screen poses questions that the user answers, then prints out ready-to-file forms for no-fault divorces, landlord-tenant and small-claims matters.The computer program can also calculate the amount of child support required under state guidelines. The forms are court-approved and ready to be filed in domestic relations cases.New York State has some kiosks in place and plans to install more, but court officials recognize the machines are of little or no help to the many who are not computer literate. So they are putting resources into providing in-person assistance to the self-represented. In Manhattan, the Office for the Self-Represented has just opened with court clerks trained to deal with an expected floodtide of laypeople. Officials hope the new office will help unclog one of the busiest courts in the nation, where approximately 67,000 to 70,000 civil cases are pending annually, according to chief clerk John Werner. "Ours is a large, complex institution, and litigation can be stressful and mystifying to persons not familiar with the process. We think we can be of help," said Werner.In Santa Clara, Calif., a clinic is serving as a model for court-assisted programs for the indigent poor in the state. Operating in the basement of the Superior Court Family Law Division, the clinic fills up by 9 a.m. each day with people needing help in family law proceedings. Many don't speak English, some are illiterate and none can afford lawyers. "The people who represent themselves didn't know how to fill out the paperwork properly," recalled Narda Tomlinson, a staff volunteer at the Family Law Clinic. "They couldn't afford advice from an attorney and it was causing a lot of problems. They'd get a court date and wouldn't have the proper paperwork filed or filled out properly when they came to court. They would have to get another court date, and that would just prolong and tie up the courts a longer time because they'd have another court date for the same reason."Legal experts say the ranks of the self-represented are growing particularly in the areas of family law, bankruptcy and tenant-landlord and other real estate matters.In Maricopa County, for example, an analysis of divorce filings in 1990 found that in 88 percent of all divorce cases, at least one of the spouses had no attorney, according to a 1995 American Bar Association report.[ED: OPTIONAL TRIM NEXT TWO GRAFS]Legal fees are particularly expensive in divorce proceedings. In 1992, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that the hourly rates of divorce lawyers range anywhere from $150 to $450, making litigation prohibitive even for many middle class people. "Full-blown litigation in divorce may cost upwards of a million dollars," chief clerk John Werner noted.One divorcing woman from New York is typical of those making the decision to represent herself: "At first it was the exorbitant expense," she recalled. "It is outrageous for attorneys to charge the retainers or hourly rates that they do, especially when one looks at the law of supply and demand -- an oversupply of lawyers versus the consumer demand." She said she eventually found help on the Internet to do her own divorce. [END OF OPTIONAL TRIM]Some argue that while court assistance may help ease the strain on courthouses, it's no panacea for the self-represented. Judge William Underwood of the State Supreme Court in Riverhead, N.Y., opposes the idea of courts helping laypeople who are untrained in the law. He wrote to The New York Law Journal: "If a self-represented litigant is unable to . . . file a summons and complaint without assistance, what are the chances of their understanding substantive principles of law or courtroom procedure once their action comes to trial?" Another issue for some judges is the use of nonlawyers who are assigned to help the self-represented. Nonlawyers are not licensed to practice and are, for the most part, legally forbidden from representing people in their cases.All court officials and staff interviewed for this article emphasized that the information nonlawyers provide is limited to procedural matters, such as telling the client which papers to file. "You have to know the line to walk between giving substantive and procedural advice," said Lois Bloom, the senior staff attorney for the Pro Se Office at the U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan.Another concern comes from lawyers who are afraid they will lose business, if people are getting free legal help from the courts. [EDITORS: SEE SIDEBAR 1]But most agree that court assistance is needed, and that some legal help is better than no help at all. A special commission appointed by the American Bar Association, the nation's largest private voluntary organization for lawyers, has endorsed the use of nonlawyers in certain matters, such as simple divorce proceedings and domestic violence restraining orders."In an ideal justice system, all people along the continuum between poor and rich would be able to obtain just solutions, whether through self-representation or from affordable sources that provide appropriate help," said a 1995 report by a 16-member ABA commission that included lawyers and nonlawyers and held hearings nationwide. "The commission, like other bar, court and public entities that have examined this issue, has found that they cannot."SIDEBAR 1260 wordsLawyers Cite Reasons for Opposing Self-Representation (ANS) -- Some lawyers aren't happy that their peers may lose business to people who represent themselves in civil court. "There are those who believe that we're taking food out of the mouths of lawyers' children. I don't think that's the case" said John Werner, chief clerk of the New York State Supreme Court. In late June, the Manhattan court opened its Office for the Self-Represented to help do-it-yourself litigants.But Robin Yeamans, an attorney in California, said many lawyers have lost business as a result of the trend. "A lot of attorneys saw the phones stop ringing because of the number of people representing themselves," Yeamans said. "Attorneys are not wrong to be anxious about the increase in self-representation because it means the evaporation of some of the attorneys' business."Yeamans, who has one of the largest family law practices in the San Jose area, said competition from people representing themselves hasn't hurt her business. In fact, she is the author of a self-help legal book for people to learn how to do their own divorces in Santa Clara County, Calif. As court-assisted programs grow, lawyers themselves may benefit from the extra help. Narda Tomlinson has seen many lawyers asking how to fill out forms in the Family Law Clinic where she works as a volunteer. "It's incredible how much attorneys learn too," Tomlinson said. "It helps new attorneys out with their training and teaches them how to fill out paperwork because they don't get that in law school -- they don't learn how to fill out forms."SIDEBAR 2329 wordsSanta Clara Helps Abused Women Get Fast Legal Protection (ANS) -- The civil court system, with its arcane procedures and complex rules, can be an intimidating place for the uninitiated -- and especially for domestic violence victims who are in crisis, according to those who work within the system.In Santa Clara County, Calif., the State Superior Court's Family Law Clinic program, the first of its kind in California, has tried to make the system more friendly to women without lawyers by helping them get immediate legal protection from dangerous family members. The clinic is set up so that restraining orders can be filled out, processed, signed by a judge and filed with the police -- all in one visit. Narda Tomlinson, a volunteer who works at the clinic, related the story of a U.S. citizen who got a restraining order after being lured back to the Philippines by her mother."Her father didn't like that she had been Americanized. When she arrived they put her under house arrest, and her father beat her. She escaped and lived in the jungles for three months. An American friend got her out of the country. She said her father was coming to kill her for disgracing the family," Tomlinson recalled. "She showed me her body -- it was all scratched up from living in the jungle." On occasion the volunteers are asked by the court to accompany domestic violence victims when they meet face to face with violent spouses who are also present at the court.Elena Hobbs-Minor, a legal therapist counselor who volunteers at the clinic, remembered one time when a judge granted a restraining order to an abused woman. "Her ex was there. The woman looked so frightened. The judge picked up on it right away and asked me to accompany her," she said. Minor thought for a minute and then added: "The irony is right next to the office, people were standing there getting their marriage certificates. One set of people is really happy and the other set is really stressed."Karen Winner is an investigative reporter based in New York. She is author of the book Divorced from Justice.Contacts:John Werner, chief clerk, Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York, N.Y., 212-374-4422.Vincent Sombrotto, Port Washington, N.Y., 516-767-9482. Lois Bloom, senior staff attorney, Pro Se Office, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, New York, N.Y., 212-805-0175. Narda Tomlinson, staff volunteer, Santa Clara County Superior Court Family Law Division, San Jose, Calif., 408-299-8567. Elena Hobbs-Minor, legal therapist counselor, Santa Clara County Supreme Court Family Law Division, San Jose, Calif., 408-299-8567, email@example.com. Robin Yeamans, attorney, San Jose, Calif., 408-253-6200. Background:Frank Byrne, deputy chief clerk, Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York, N.Y., 212-374-4422.Diana Arden, Pro Se Office, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, New York, N.Y., 212-637-0136.Frank Broccolina, deputy state court administrator, Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts, Courts of Appeal building, Annapolis, Md., 410-974-2186.Information Service, National Center For State Courts, Williamsburg, Va., 757-253-2000, http:www.ncsc.dni.us.