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Plan to help unrepresented litigants sparks board debate

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

A draft plan to serve California's self-represented litigants won approval from the State Bar Board of Governors last month, but only after several members expressed concerns that the plan to help pro pers, while well-intended, might create more problems.

Steven Ipsen
Ipsen

"This looks like a very noble idea," said Steven Ipsen, a deputy district attorney who represents Los Angeles, "but it undermines the legal profession. It falsely tells people they can go without a lawyer."

The plan, created by a Judicial Council task force that was established at the State Bar's behest, recommends ways for the court system to handle the growing number of people who represent themselves in court. Among its recommendations:

  • Establishing court-based self-help centers throughout the state and creating a support system for the centers;
  • Providing space in court facilities to offer help to those without lawyers;
  • Considering the needs of self-represented litigants in allocating judicial and staff resources;
  • Pursuing stable funding strategies; and
  • Giving the public realistic expectations about how the courts work.

"The issue of self-represented litigants is a serious concern for the justice system that has been ignored for too long," said Neal Dudovitz, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, where the court's self-help center was used by 50,000 people last year. "That's the tip of the iceberg," he added. "Thousands of people are left out of the system."

The reality is two-fold, according to Dudovitz and other public interest lawyers: there are not enough lawyers to help everyone who needs one, and self-help centers already exist and are here to stay.

The bar board has a policy of working with the Judicial Council to develop a plan to improve court access and services for self-represented litigants. Most of the board had no problem with the plan when it was presented in October.

But Ipsen and two other board members raised several issues and asked that a vote on the plan be postponed. They were concerned about promoting self-help as an answer in all cases, particularly those where legal representation is essential, about middle income people using the centers with the belief they can effectively represent themselves, and about neighborhood operations run by non-lawyers who promise effective legal services to the poor.

James Heiting
Heiting

Ipsen likened self-help centers to a hospital with an "operate on yourself" center. Riverside governor James Heiting, who said he supports the centers, was nonetheless concerned that pro pers clog courtrooms and keep attorneys waiting "while the judge explains how the law works." He also worried that the more free help people receive, the more they will be encouraged to go to court without a lawyer.

Santa Clara County Judge Erica Yew, who said 90 percent of her calendar is pro per cases, said she always takes lawyers out of order "so they can get on their way. I always accommodate that attorney and other judges do the same."

She also said judges do not want to be in the position of educating pro pers on the law, because it can leave the perception that the judge is losing neutrality. "The reality is the court discourages people from representing themselves, but they have a constitutional right to do so."

Yew supports self-help centers, which she said save the courts valuable time by educating those who represent themselves. "The reality is (pro pers) are in the system and we should expand the availability of self-help centers for those who cannot afford lawyers," she said.

Citing statistics indicating 99 percent of the users of self-help centers feel they were treated fairly, even if they were unsuccessful in court, Dudovitz said the centers both increase the users' confidence in the court system and serve as a screening device to send people to lawyer referral services if they do need a lawyer. "We believe self-help centers are better than no representation," he said.

Nearly all the board agreed that given the large number of unrepresented litigants, self-help centers offer much-needed support. As San Mateo governor Vivian Kral said, "This is going to happen with or without State Bar approval."

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