More people choosing to skip lawyers

Self-representation on the rise, courts want litigants to be more informed
This is an archived article that was published on in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

About 60 percent of Utah's pro se litigants make less than $36,000 annually. A story in Monday's edition about people who represent themselves in court gave an incorrect income amount.

If it's true, as the saying goes, that a person "who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client," then Utah's courts see plenty of fools.

Thousands of people appear every year in Utah courts without lawyers, according to a survey conducted for the state Judicial Council.

In 2005, 47 percent of those filing for divorce opted not to pay attorneys to help them, according to the survey.

And in cases involving protective orders, stalking, small claims and guardianship, the majority of the parties were self-represented.

The purpose of the survey was to identify the needs of the so-called pro se (by oneself) litigants, whose ranks are growing, and find solutions to help them.

"It's a major national movement right now," said Mary Boudreau, of the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts.

Court authorities will be asking the Legislature for $107,000 to fund a pilot project to place an experienced attorney in two courthouses, one rural and one urban, to provide legal information - not legal advice - to self-represented litigants.

"It is difficult for a lay person to effectively participate in Utah's courts because of the complicated nature of the law, and the complex rules of evidence and procedure," according to a summary of the survey presented to the Judicial Council, which formulates court policies.

Because of those complexities, those who represent themselves "may not obtain the same benefits from the courts as a represented litigant," according to the report.

It is the stated mission of the state courts to provide people "an open, fair, efficient and independent system for the advancement of justice under the law."

But for that to work, some of the "challenges" presented by pro se parties must be addressed, the report said.

The survey suggests that most self-represented litigants are "fairly satisfied" with their court experience.

But judges and court staff reported that pro se parties require more time than represented parties.

The survey also found that self-represented litigants also:

* expect court staff to provide advice they are not allowed to give.

* lack reasonable expectations of case outcomes.

* fail to bring necessary witnesses and evidence to court.

* do not understand procedural and evidentiary rules.

According to the survey, people eschew lawyers primarily for two reasons: They believe their cases are not complicated enough to require an attorney, and they cannot afford an attorney.

About 60 percent of pro se litigants make less than $00,000 annually, according to the survey.

Boudreau, program manager for public access to the courts, said the attorneys funded by the proposed pilot program would help people locate forms, direct them to attorney resources, online resources and free legal clinics.

Boudreau said pro se litigants are coming to court "in the thousands," and pro bono programs, where attorneys donate their time, cannot meet the need.

In 1999, Utah and nearly every other state sent teams to a national conference on problems of self-represented litigants. Since then, "most state courts are well aware of the needs of people trying to navigate without an attorney and are at least examining the problem," Boudreau said.