Representing Yourself Can Be Costly, Georgia Judges Say

On behalf of Douglas Hassinger

Americans may encounter legal issues for a number of reasons: custody disputes, divorces and criminal charges are just a few of the situations that can arise in an average person’s life. For most people dealing with such issues, the assistance of an experienced attorney is not just a convenience, it is crucial. But the slow economy has led more Georgians to represent themselves in an effort to save on legal fees. Though this method may initially appeal to those facing a personal budget crunch, the ultimate result of an unfavorable decision in court can be far more costly.

The Trend toward Self-Representation

A survey recently released by the American Bar Association found that 60 percent of judges said the number of self-represented cases increased in 2009. This survey was meant to gauge the impact of the economy on the courts. The most common types of cases in which self-representation is growing are domestic relations, foreclosures and housing. Georgia had the highest participation of any state in the survey, with 124 judges responding.

Although surveys of judges give some indication of how many people are handling their own cases, the exact number is unknown, because state courts do not track these statistics. But the number of people choosing self-representation appears to be on the rise, especially in family law courts.

The tough economy has not only contributed to an increase in self-representation. It has also resulted in decreased funding for the courts. But as courts strive to become more efficient, self-represented litigants tend to slow down the proceedings and use more staff time.

An even bigger concern than delay is that self-represented litigants may be doing themselves more harm than good. According to some judges, people acting as their own lawyers often fail to complete paperwork, neglect to give proper notice, and commit other common procedural errors. Those who choose self-representation usually do not know the rules of evidence, and may have a very difficult time in presenting their side of the story within the court rules.

This poses challenges for clerks and judges, who must make complicated decisions without all of the facts that may be relevant to the case. Neither clerks nor judges are allowed to give legal advice. Clerks are not lawyers, and can get in trouble for practicing law without a license by assisting self-represented litigants. Judges must remain impartial in order to play their proper role. In cases where someone had no legal representation, 62 percent of judges surveyed by the American Bar Association said outcomes were worse for the unrepresented party.

Limited Scope Representation

Those charged with a crime who cannot afford to hire a defense attorney are entitled to have a lawyer appointed to represent them free of charge. However, even in civil cases, there may be cost-saving options. Unbundled legal services, or limited scope representation, is a new concept currently being promoted in Cobb County that could mean saving on fees while still getting the benefit of a qualified advocate. A popular unbundled legal service is an attorney consultation, where a lawyer can give advice on how to proceed with a case, as well as help in preparing legal documents for a single court hearing. This can provide a litigant with some guidance in court, while saving the full cost of a retainer to secure representation during an entire case. Although limited scope representation is not without its critics among both lawyers and judges, most agree that some form of representation is better than none at all for those involved in court proceedings.

The Advantages of Seeking Representation

Going without a lawyer and trying to handle things yourself is very often penny wise and pound foolish. There is no substitute for the assistance of an experienced attorney. A lawyer can help clients navigate complicated legal processes, gather and present relevant evidence, and make effective legal arguments. When it comes to contested proceedings, especially in family law courts, the stakes are too high to go without the counsel of an experienced attorney.

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