“Cases Without Counsel” study confirms the obvious but also raises more subtle dilemmas

If all you manage to do was read the headline from the ABA Journal online story today — “Self-represented litigants perceive bias and disadvantage in court process, report finds,” your reaction will likely be limited to “Duh.”  But, there is much more that can be gleaned from this “Cases Without Counsel” study and report that the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System has put out than confirmation of obvious suspicions.  The report includes findings and recommendations learned from the experiences of more than 125 self-represented litigants in family law matters in four different states, including my own state of Tennessee.  The group also interviewed nearly 50 other players in the systems (judicial and non-judicial) who regularly interact with self-represented litigants, but not any opposing counsel.

As to the headline, of course someone who seeks to represent themselves is going to see the way the system is set up as putting them at a disadvantage, and, of course, they are going to think that the deck is stacked against them in favor of an adversary who has a lawyer.  The lawyer (hopefully) knows what they are doing and, thus, speaks the language of the court and, more likely than not, will at least appear to have a cordial, professional relationship with the presiding judge.  All of those factors are discussed by interviewees in the report and all of them, not surprisingly, affect the perception of whether the result was fair and just.  One study participant explains quite vividly how even what likely is intended by judges to be an effort at being helpful — encouraging a self-represented litigant at a disadvantage to go get a lawyer — can be perceived as discouraging if not insidious:

She [the judge] actually told me twice that I needed to get a lawyer….She made it sound like that was her ruling — that I had to get a lawyer or they weren’t going to welcome me back into court.  She sided with him and I felt like it was because he had the lawyer, because she told me twice I needed to get one.

I’ve a timely example of this from my own life.  As I know I’ve mentioned before, Tennessee’s bar is not unified and the Tennessee Bar Association is just a voluntary membership organization.  I get telephone calls and emails from people who are unhappy with a lawyer and find on the web that I am the Chair of the TBA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility.  They reach out to me thinking I’m in the business of disciplining lawyers – I end up explaining to them that I’m not, that I actually represent lawyers and law firms – but I let them know how to get in touch with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, if they want to, which is the regulatory/disciplinary arm in our state.  Yesterday I received such a call, but the complaint – which the caller managed to communicate before I could truly suss out the situation and cut them off politely to point them in the right direction — was that opposing counsel in their case had information but was waiting to turn it over until the court-established deadline for doing so.  The caller wanted to know whether opposing counsel could get in trouble for that since surely the lawyer is supposed to tell any one who is self-represented information learned it or documents gathered as soon as the opposing lawyer learned it.  This person may not end up calling the BPR after hearing me say, “no, generally speaking, the lawyer on the other side of your case owes most of their duties to their client, some more to the court, but a very small number to you as their client’s adversary,” (or probably words to that effect but that weren’t nearly as well-articulated).

The report generated from the study sheds a good bit of light on the complexities involved in how people end up having to (or choosing to) navigate the court system on their own in family law cases.  It clearly confirms another piece of information that is obvious — while not the “only” factor, actual (or perceived) lack of ability to afford a lawyer is beyond question the primary factor that leaves people to navigate the court system on their own.

But, that non the “only” factor still deserves real discussion.  Almost 25% percent of the participants in the study actually “expressed a preference to handle the matter without attorney representation.”  And nearly 20% of the participants in the study also indicated that past bad experiences with attorneys influenced their decision to not hire a lawyer for their family law matter.

This report is another data point helping make clear that trying to “solve” the problem of self-representation, which is often described as an access to justice problem but is really a second-level version of what is traditionally thought of as the original access-to-justice problem — delivering legal services to people who are truly indigent — is not something for which there is going to be one “silver bullet” solution in the form of changes to the ethics rules.

The full report is absolutely worth adding to your reading pile and you can get it here.  Digesting the full report does leave me, for the first time, questioning whether the absolute prohibition on contingent fee representation in divorce cases set out in Model Rule 1.5(d)(1) ought to be reevaluated.

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