In family law courts, it is not completely unusual to see men and women choosing to represent themselves instead of hiring an attorney. In amicable, uncontested divorces, there may simply not be a need: some former spouses are able to shoulder the emotional weight of the process and negotiate agreements regarding their finances, children, and property. However, others go through the process alone because they are unable to afford legal representation. And with the still-improving economy, some courts are reporting that this is increasing: Connecticut state courts especially say that more defendants are choosing to defend themselves instead of hiring a divorce lawyer.
In a lecture she delivered at the University of Hartford in April, Connecticut State Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers stated that the number of self-represented parties in the state’s civil cases has increased by as much as 112% since 2005. In 2005, there were reportedly 12,356 self-represented parties in civil cases. However, by 2009, Rogers said that number had climbed to 26,252. The judge said that these defendants were especially common in family court, where she reported that nearly 81% of cases have at least one party navigating the system without a lawyer. Area attorneys agreed with Rogers, saying they have seen a significant increase in the number of husbands and wives attempting to handle custody and child support disputes “pro se”, or without an attorney.
These high numbers of pro se defendants are believed to be members of Connecticut’s “new poor”: people who would normally have a job, but have lost work as a result of the recession and now face losing their homes and fighting bill collectors in court. While some parts of the country have recovered, the economic crisis still lingers in others, causing additional lost jobs and more foreclosures. For this reason, many legal experts say this trend of self-representation has no end in sight.
The Connecticut state judicial branch has attempted to adjust to this change by simplifying legal forms, enhancing their website, expanding information desks, and helping litigants access free legal advice. However, the already-stressed court system seems to be struggling: some lawyers report that cases with pro se defendants take longer to resolve in court, making it difficult for the courts to handle its heavy caseload. Self-representation can also have a serious effect on plaintiffs and defendants: the party with a lawyer often pays more in legal fees, while the pro se party often sees an unfavorable verdict.
“First and foremost, we have noticed the same thing in the Raleigh area”, says Michelle Julyan, Attorney at Law, Julyan Law Firm PLLC. “This is causing a big problem for our judges and the court calendar because it is tying up a lot of time. In simple and what seem to be uncontested divorces, it is always better to retain council. What seems uncontested, there may be much more going on behind the scenes such a property valuation. Even if it does seem uncontested, someone should at least try to consult with someone familiar in these realms of law – many parties unknowingly wave their rights. Post judgment, there is nothing a lawyer can do to reclaim these rights.”
This adverse effect is often clearest in custody disputes, child support, and alimony cases, requiring many judges to step in to prevent potentially devastating outcomes. In a recent case in New Haven, Judge Bernadette Conway halted an uncontested divorce hearing after watching an unemployed, pro se mother of two refuse to fight her ex-husband’s plan to provide minimal support to her and her children. The mother, her former spouse and his attorney were all sent back to further mediate the issue. Unfortunately, with a beleaguered court system, a struggling economy and a constant stream of self-representing defendants, many people may find that there are not enough judges like Conway in Connecticut to ensure that justice is served.