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Legal help available to those who lack lawyers

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2008 12:02 a.m. MDT

John Baxter () John Baxter ()
Whether it is a smart move or not, plenty of Utahns head to the courthouse without a lawyer to take on everything from a simple eviction to a contested divorce chock-full of complicated questions about finances and property, not to mention the emotional charged issues of child custody.
A 2006 survey of self-represented litigants showed most of them were reasonably satisfied with the services they got from the courts. However, judges and court staff found that self-represented people needed much more of the court's time than those with attorneys. Many self-represented people wanted courthouse employees to provide legal advice — which they cannot — and those without lawyers sometimes have unreasonable expectations about how their cases will turn out.
In addition, the self-represented individuals often don't understand how the courts work and end up not bringing the correct paperwork or necessary witnesses.
Utah is taking steps to make it easier and better for people who cannot — or will not — hire an attorney to navigate the court system.
Salt Lake City Municipal Judge John Baxter heads a 20-member group, the Utah Judicial Council's Standing Committee on Resources for Self-Represented Parties, that has been addressing this issue for the past three years.
"We always tell people it's best to hire a lawyer — that's our position, period," said Baxter, referring to the committee's general goals.
"Should you choose to not hire a lawyer, we will do whatever we can to ensure that your encounter with the courts is productive from your side and efficient and productive from the court's side."
Baxter, who recently took part in a conference on the topic at Harvard Law School, is quick to note that self-representation is cropping up as a serious issue for courts nationwide.
Anecdotally, almost everyone has some story of a brother who got financially hosed in a divorce and still gets a raw deal on visitation, or a sister who isn't getting a dime in child support and works two jobs while her ex-husband vacations with a girlfriend in Florida. Nonetheless, many people still believe they can handle intricate legal matters themselves.
After a period of homework and investigation, Baxter said, the committee prepared a strategic plan to improve things for self-represented litigants and some of these changes are now in place. Among the latest innovations:
• A pilot project Self-Help Center in the state's 2nd and 8th court districts that will last through June 30, 2008. Center employees can be reached at 888-683-0009 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday. The center staff cannot offer any legal advice but can inform people about what paperwork to prepare for court, how to represent themselves and what must be done with a court order. The center staff also can make referrals to legal services and community resources. Help also can be obtained by e-mailing the staff at selfhelp@email.utcourts.gov. Right now, this help is available only in Daggett, Davis, Duchesne, Morgan, Uintah and Weber counties.
• Limited legal help, or "unbundling," in which attorneys who have agreed to take part will charge a smaller fee for helping with a portion of an individual's case. This concept has taken off in southern Utah with strong backing from 5th District Judge James Shumate and members of the Utah Bar in that area. People who cannot afford thousands of dollars for a case can sit down with a lawyer who can charge for certain areas of the case where it would be most helpful to have an attorney, with the individual doing the rest of the work.
Baxter said this is largely aimed at low-income individuals who may bypass hiring a lawyer because they don't have enough money.
"If I walk into an attorney's office and say, 'I need to hire a divorce lawyer,' and he says, 'That will be $5,000,' I may turn around and leave and say to myself, 'I'd rather get beaten up in court,"' Baxter said. "But if I say, 'I don't have a lot of money but need some help,' the attorney can say, 'I can draft certain documents for $500, I can file initial pleadings for $500.' It's an opportunity to engage a client for a smaller fee for a smaller amount of work, but at least make something out of a case."
For the individual, a simple run-through of how things work, getting advice about what papers to fill out and file, and having an attorney during just a few crucial stages in the proceedings might make a huge difference — and also makes the court process go smoother.
"There were numbers of people coming to court who simply didn't know what they were doing. It bogs the process down," Baxter said. "People would show up with improper documents, or documents that were incorrectly completed, or they do not know what questions to ask. It slows everything down."
One thing that confounds him is the fact that many of these issues emerged in the area of family law, which is one of the more complex and deeply emotional areas of the legal system, with consequences that can affect many lives for years. It is essential that all participants get a fair shake and a reasonably acceptable outcome, especially when children are involved. Yet people often act as their own attorney even though the stakes are so high.
"You can fix a mistake in family law, but people suffer in the meantime. People might have improper support orders in place, or incorrectly calculated alimony or support orders. In many cases, it could have been done better."
In certain situations of great importance, it's probably best not to go to court representing yourself. Family law can present such situations, as can serious criminal cases. It's also best to get professional help with highly specialized civil litigation such as medical malpractice or patent violations.
Baxter also is heartened by the fact that the Utah State Court's Web page now has many more legal forms than there were five years ago that can be easily downloaded and prepared by individuals.
He said staff attorneys at the Administrative Office of the Courts have edited and improved those forms over time, and he expects that effort will continue. There also is a list that defines what legal terms mean.
This is not part of the committee's work, but it helps the public. "It looks like we're working on plain English — straightforward, but still legally correct explanations."
To access it, go to www.utcourts.gov/ and click on the "Self Help Resources."
Overall, Baxter is pleased with the progress made so far in helping people understand and participate in the court system.
"From the court's perspective, we're looking for better outcomes and more efficient process. If people feel the courts are not making decisions appropriately, they lose faith in the courts," Baxter said. "It's the trust in the courts that makes it — we need that if we are to have any credibility at all.


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com

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