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More Litigants Go To Court Without Lawyers
State committee seeks ways to assist
Monday, March 16, 2009
By Christian Nolan
Waterbury Family Court Judge Elizabeth A. Bozzuto says that more than half of her court docket consists of people representing themselves. Is it a sign of the recent economic hard times; an indicator that lawyers are pricing themselves out of some business, or both?
Whatever the reason, the number of pro se litigants is on the rise. Now Judicial Branch officials are trying to figure out how they can help the do-it-yourself types through the legal process, which in turn should help speed up court dockets statewide.
“It’s just about making the process more accessible and easier for them to navigate,” said Bozzuto, co-chair of the 27-member Self-Represented Parties Committee, which began meeting last year as part of Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers’s Public Service and Trust Commission.
Bozzuto explained that many self-represented litigants come to family court seeking divorce or child custody, as examples, but don’t understand why the hearing cannot take place as scheduled. For instance, she said they might not understand requirements of providing notice upon the other party.
“All those sorts of things are understandably lost on self-represented litigants,” Bozzuto said. “If it were a lawyer, the lawyer would’ve known to have the other party served.”
Judge Raymond R. Norko, who presides over Hartford Community Court, said the rise in self-represented litigants puts “the whole judicial system under more pressure.”
“It requires us to come up with plain-language forms, educational tools; requires judges to be a little more patient with self-represented litigants. It really hits the system in every direction you can think of,” said Norko, the other committee co-chair.
Family court litigants are the most likely to be pro se. From January 2007 to January 2008, 69 percent of family law cases in Connecticut involved one or more plaintiffs representing themselves. The number for defendants was 43 percent.
Bozzuto recalled when she practiced in family courts nearly a decade ago, only about one-third of the parties were self-represented. She said housing and foreclosure dockets also have many pro se litigants; it’s less common in civil and criminal law cases. “It’s pocketed,” said Bozzuto. “But where it is it is pretty prevalent.”
Judicial Branch officials lack statistics on litigants without attorneys, but the committee has sent out surveys to courts statewide to get a better grasp of the situation.
Statistics are also scarce nationwide. Richard Zorza, coordinator of the Self Represented Litigation Network, which works with legal organizations nationwide on pro se issues, said the group also has sent out surveys.
Zorza, an attorney in Washington, D.C., does specifically connect the rise in pro se parties to the recession. “It’s absolutely under the pressure of the economy,” he said. “People don’t have money, lawyers obviously remain expensive, and more cases are being generated in more areas. People are pursuing small debts that in the past they would’ve forgiven.”
The wave of pro se litigants has grown so large that at least three court districts nationwide – in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago -- have set up legal centers to provide services and advice to parties who represent themselves in civil cases.
About 150 centers exist nationwide, but most are part of state courts and vary from clinics to telephone hotlines to online resources, Zorza said. "It's certainly unique doing it in federal court," he said.
In U.S. District Court in Connecticut, the number of self-represented litigants has risen gradually each year since 2005, when there were 180. The number has crept up to 199, 203 and then 267 from 2006-08.
“I don’t know if it’s an economic indicator or they couldn’t find an attorney to take the case,” said Robin Tabora, the district court clerk. “People get more and more educated; maybe they feel more comfortable representing themselves.”
In Connecticut, Norko’s committee has already discussed some specific proposals and must submit recommendations to the Judicial Branch by June.
First off, committee members intend to ensure that all paperwork that self-represented litigants need is in “plain English” – meaning easy to understand and not filled with complicated legal terms.
Next, when a pro se litigant asks for one form, they will be given all related forms. As Norko explained it, rather than just giving a litigant “Form A,” they’ll be given Forms “A through F” because they might not know they even need the others.
Already, court support service centers are in all of the state’s judicial district courts and will eventually be in all courthouses statewide. Judge Bozzuto described the centers as “self-help desks” where litigants can find the materials they need to get their paperwork in order. Officials also plan to launch a web site that would assist pro se litigants.
Another idea under discussion would require a change in Connecticut’s Practice Book. Bozzuto described it as “unbundling.” The idea is that if a pro se litigant begins, for example, a family law case without an attorney, then later feels overwhelmed, he can hire a lawyer for just one aspect of the case, such as child custody.
Also under discussion is designating days when the entire docket in a particular courtroom consists of pro se cases and setting up “advice days” when pro se litigants can meet with volunteer attorneys.
Meanwhile, courts will continue to be flooded with self-represented litigants. In general, Bozzuto said she does not mind the challenge.
“Do I have to take a step back, take a few extra minutes to explain the process? Sure,” said Bozzuto. “But to me, at this point, it doesn’t seem so bothersome.”
Reference LInk: http://www.ctlawtribune.com/getarticle.aspx?ID=33087