Issue March 6, 2012

Pro se rising

Opting for self-representation in family court

Certain consistencies lie in Judge Stephen M. George’s Friday morning family court docket. A bailiff signals to waiting parties in the hallway. Heels click until the carpets of courtroom 603 muffle the sound. Entering as one, the pack forks, headed for opposite tables, often in He vs. She formation.

Now in its 20th year, Jefferson County Family Court isn’t like other trial courts. One judge tends to all of a particular family’s legal matters: divorce, child abuse, custody, child support. In George’s courtroom, stuffed animals man the jury box for any kids in tow. And lawyers? They’re less of a guarantee.

Judge George says the number of self-represented litigants, or pro se in Latin legal jargon, has steadily grown since he arrived 11 years ago.

“In the last 10 years it’s skyrocketed,” George says from his bench, a stack of lavender folders holding the morning’s divorce and custody cases. He thinks, in part, this is a reflection of a down economy, with litigants hoping to avoid expensive attorneys.

“I don’t begrudge people who want to do some of the work themselves,” George says. “I do work around my house myself, and I don’t necessarily have the expertise to do it.”

Also attributing to the growth is the fact that over the last five years, a coalition of lawyers, advocates, the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office, and Judge George — family court’s chief judge — have worked to make self-representation easier.

Downloadable pro se paperwork is available online. Monthly clinics guide parties through any confusing legal terms. In 2009, a room for those interested in self-representation opened at Legal Aid’s Louisville office. Four computers with links to forms and a nearby printer conquer the first steps in filing a motion.

This morning, five of the seven cases on George’s docket have at least one self-represented party, including the 9 a.m. proceeding involving the custody of a 7-year-old girl. Dad sits hunched in a blue oxford shirt next to his lawyer, Armand Judah.

Mom’s on her own.

Judah pipes in. His client worries that the mother of his daughter is about to move to Florida — with their child.

“No one’s saying (she’s) a bad mom,” Judah says. “We just don’t want the child moved out of … Louisville.”

George explains that the girl can’t be taken out of Kentucky without a court order or the agreement of both parents, something Mom wasn’t aware of. His final words about a hearing to determine “what’s best for the child” portend the woman’s need for an attorney.

When it comes to divorce, Jeff Been says the ideal candidates are low-income, low-asset cases. In other words: no children, no property, no savings to wrangle over.

Been’s the executive director of Louisville’s Legal Aid Society, an agency that’s lost 10-20 percent of its federal and state funding over the last four years. They’ve always struggled to keep up with demand, but leaner budgets mean prioritizing cases. Supporting a pro se client takes a lot less effort than heading to court with them.

“We’re not in a position with limited resources to really help a person who comes to us and says, ‘Look, I’ve been married for 12 years, I’ve been separated for 11 of those years, I just need a divorce that’s formal and official,’” Been says.

By the mid-2000s, it was clear Jefferson County needed to assist pro se litigants. Many were turning to the web, paying $80 to download self-representation forms that were often inadequate.

“People were buying it here in Kentucky, and if it was for Massachusetts, it really didn’t have application or didn’t help them,” Been says. “That’s where we stepped up in cooperation with family court and said what can we do that’s Kentucky specific so that people don’t spend money on tools that aren’t useful?”

Grants have funded the creation of local pro se forms as well as the website kyjustice.org. By 2009, that site (not just for family court motions, but for other legal matters like criminal record expungement) received 782 downloads, according to Legal Aid. By 2011, as the available pro se paperwork grew, so did interest, not just in Louisville, but across the state. Last year, the website totaled 8,150 downloads.

Angie Anton oversees the child support division of the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office. The county has more than 60,000 active cases. While the majority of these cases are pro se, only a couple thousand clients have viewed online forms. She says few make it into her office.

“I think parties still like to talk to people first,” Anton says.

Still, George believes accessibility to forms has contributed to a do-it-yourself approach. He estimates parties self-represent in 70 percent of post-divorce motions (like custody). And about 40 percent of divorces now have at least one pro se party. But even in “easy” cases with amicable, low-asset couples, challenges arise.

Take the McCampbells. Neither has an attorney. This morning, their paperwork is incomplete. George places them under oath so the conversation can act as official documentation.

“I’m going to go through the whole thing and figure out what you have and who’s going to get it,” George begins.

Husband and wife look at each other and chuckle. They don’t have much, except for Mr. McCampbell’s health insurance that his wife has stayed on despite a four-year separation. George explains a divorce would end her coverage.

“I guess you can let it run out,” McCampbell says, wiping bangs from her eyes.

“She’s got a heart condition. That’s why she needs the insurance,” her soon-to-be ex responds. The room goes quiet.

Efforts are under way to modify forms that litigants often struggle with. By constantly making self-representation easier, George’s courtroom has had to adapt. His staff attorney spends a lot of time reviewing paperwork that’s not filled out correctly. Mistakes can result in unnecessary hearings.

Meanwhile, Judge George finds himself refereeing raw emotion.

His last case of the morning brings a couple separated since the 1990s; they have finally decided to divorce. For more than 30 minutes, George listens to loosely organized details of a tired, damaged love. Accusations of cheating surface, as do expletive-laced voicemails.

Attorneys could’ve buffered George from a lot of this, but he doesn’t mind. Justice is a right, even if it doesn’t
unfold neatly.

“Our job is to serve,” he says. “And if it takes more time, it takes more time.”