Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

More Americans Want to Be Their Own Perry Mason

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

More Americans Want to Be Their Own Perry Mason

Article excerpt

On television, it looks simple enough: You go to court. You make your case, with feeling, before a sharp-tongued but well-meaning judge. After a few moments -and a commercial break - the judge renders a decision. It looks so easy, you wonder: Who needs a lawyer?

Increasingly, many others are wondering the same thing.

The history of self-representation in court does not begin with "Judge Judy" - or even Judge Wapner and "The People's Court." It is a constitutional right that goes back throughout American history.

But in the past few years, the nation has seen a surge in the number of cases handled pro se - that is, "on one's own behalf" - particularly relatively uncomplicated issues like small claims or divorce. As the trend gains momentum, it is in some ways fundamentally changing how people interact with the courts, making contact more direct -for better or worse.

In many jurisdictions, the number of pro se cases is getting so high, courts are developing special systems to deal with them, says Mary Ryan, a Boston lawyer and former president of the Boston bar. "A lot of these people know what they want to do, just not how to do it."

In a world where person-to-person customer service has become something to be cherished, law is moving in the opposite direction: People are looking to be left alone. Some are handling their own cases because hiring a lawyer is simply cost-prohibitive. Others go the pro se route because they believe hired representation is unnecessary.

No one questions that a change is occurring. In 1998, more than half the family law cases in California's courts featured at least one pro se litigant. Between 1991 and 1993, the number of self- represented litigants in federal appeals courts climbed 49 percent. Most tellingly, perhaps, a 1999 survey from the National Center for the State Courts found that 58 percent of Americans believed they could represent themselves in court if necessary.

All of that has left the real law professionals unsure what to think. "It may be a chance for people to resolve their problems in a more cost-effective manner," says Terry Brooks of the American Bar Association. "But there's always the fear that people could take on more than they can handle."

To be sure, the trend has spawned a big industry. Courts in different states are responding differently to the boom, but most are adopting a case-by-case approach.

One red flag went up in Pennsylvania, where the state bar contends that one self-help group, We the People, offers legal advice without a license.

Many lawyers, however, are embracing the do-it-yourself approach for relatively simple matters, either because the cases are so small they wouldn't handle them, or because it offers another recourse for the poor. …

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