Self lawyering made easier by new rule, Connecticut attorneys say
Program aims to speed family law cases
STAMFORD -- With the state's family law courts getting increasingly bogged down with rising numbers of people representing themselves, the judicial system has started a new program that allows people to hire lawyers for specific parts of their cases.
"It impacts everybody when somebody is not being represented by a lawyer," said Steve Eppler-Epstein, who sits on the Access to Justice Commission that started the program. "Everyone has to explain every step along the way. It slows down the case for the person, and on the other side it is slow going for the court personnel and the judge. When the court system slows down, that makes the judicial system more expensive for everybody," he said.
The number of people representing themselves in family cases has been growing for years, mainly because of the downturn in the economy. Now, more than three-quarters of all family cases have at least one self-represented party involved, state figures show.
The pilot program, called Limited Scope Representation, was launched in January to make it easier and quicker for those acting as their own lawyers to navigate the family court docket, where issues of divorce, separation, annulment, custody, child visitation, paternity and child support are decided. It has been used in 56 cases around the state since it was launched Jan. 6, state Judicial Branch spokeswoman Rhonda Stearley-Hebert said.
Westport lawyer Christine O'Sullivan recently was hired to handle a custody issue for a father who is representing himself in a divorce. He needed help with a hearing involving his child attending a school in a different town.
"Normally, if you are talking to a lawyer about a custody issue or divorce, you are talking about spending thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars," O'Sullivan said. She said custody cases can drag on for years. Lawyers who handle custody cases typically charge a minimum of $300 an hour, and often much more.
O'Sullivan was able to resolve the problem with a few court appearances and multiple office visits, and charged her client less than $2,000.
The right to represent oneself in court has been around since the beginning days of the nation, but it has unintended consequences.
Judges may have difficulty being fair to both sides when one is being represented by a lawyer and the other is not. People without legal training may file papers improperly or not understand how to conduct themselves in the courtroom to the letter of the law.
Judge William Bright Jr., the sitting administrative judge in the Tolland Judicial District, said, "Obviously we want to decide the cases on the merits, but it is sometimes hard to get to the merits if the person doesn't understand the legal procedure -- say, the rules of evidence -- the things they need to know to get the substantive issues in front of us," Bright said. "We can't provide legal advice to pro se plaintiffs or defendants. Sometimes a person gets stuck where they don't know what to do, and it gums up the works."
Bright sits on the Access to Justice Commission that proposed the Limited Scope Representation program to the Judicial Branch, and said the commission began looking at the issue two or three years ago. There are about 40 states that now allow similar practices. In those states it not only helped alleviate some of the pro se issues in the courts, but it promoted more pro bono, or free, work in some areas because attorneys knew they would not have to stick it out for the entire life of the case, Bright said.
Connecticut's NAME program had a good start, with lawyers filing limited representation appearances in 56 cases in its first six weeks, Bright said.
That's a drop in the bucket though. In Connecticut, during the 2012-13 fiscal year, 77 percent, or 28,010, of all family cases filed in the state had at least one self-represented party involved either as the plaintiff or defendant. During that same time, 36 percent of all the family cases filed around the state, or 11,714 cases, had both a self-represented plaintiff and self-represented defendant, statistics from the state's Judicial Branch show.
Eppler-Epstein, who is also the executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, the state's nonprofit law firm that provides free representation to low-income people, said he and his attorneys are evaluating the program to see if any of their current or prospective clients could represent themselves and have their lawyers jump in for the hard parts.
"That should make lawyers more affordable for low-income people and people of moderate means," he said.
But because most his firm's cases involve domestic violence, his lawyers we will continue to do the complete scope of those cases.
Jill Plancher, a full-time volunteer lawyer in the Stamford office of Connecticut Legal Services, said the program could free up their attorneys' time to help more people. Most lawyers are a little "gun shy," but the attorneys in her office have been talking about it and are thinking about using it because there aren't enough attorneys on staff in her office to represent all the people who need their services, she said.
One concern lawyers might have, she said, would be whether they would be well enough informed about the details of a case if they just handled one piece of it, instead of being involved from the beginning.
"The jury is still out on whether it will work," Plancher said. "I don't know if it will be effective. I hope so, but I don't know. The complication is, as an attorney you would need to make sure that you are as informed as you need to be to do a good job."
Bright said the program could expand, if things keep going the way they are.
"Our hope is it will go well in family court and within a couple of years we will be talking about it in (other) civil cases as well," he said.