YourABA September 2012 Masthead

The consequences of 'pro se' representation

According to lawyer Karina Ayala-Bermejo, 12 percent of Illinois residents live in poverty. They may also need to go to court.

Living paycheck to paycheck means that unanticipated expenses like medical bills, a rent hike, or a court case can send a family over a budgetary cliff. The vast majority of families never expect to go to court or budget for a lawyer. As a result, impoverished families would be hard pressed to pay for legal advice, even if they did plan ahead.

Self-representation becomes the only option. Indeed, the sluggish economy has sent pro se figures rocketing, although the trend of self-representation of litigants in court has been increasing for decades. In fact, Bob Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, said that “pro se is more common than represented.”

Against a backdrop of overwhelming need for pro bono legal aid, Illinois lawyers and judges convened at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago to discuss pro se litigants and successful local strategies to help them navigate the justice system.

Ignorance of the administrative and procedural methods of the law by pro se litigants poses serious challenges for courts across the country. Glaves knows that “is not news to anybody.” Filing complicated paperwork before consequential deadlines, making motions in the courtroom and understanding the legal jargon used as a matter of course are daunting access-to-justice barriers for the public. Many court petitioners with objectively meritorious claims fail for lack of legal expertise. Making matters more complicated, “48 percent of [non-English speaking] pro se litigants don’t even have a translator,” Ayala-Bermejo added. Subsequently, bar associations and courts in Illinois have developed pro bono programs to help pro se litigants press their cases.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Donnelly knows firsthand the impact of pro se on a court. “We have approximately 245,000 pro se litigants,” said Donnelly. “The amount of pro se cases is larger than the entire rest of the docket.”

Donnelly has worked with the Chicago Bar Association to create the Cook County Municipal Court Pro Bono Program, which provides legal aid to low-income residents facing a jury trial without a lawyer. “I had a lot of good ideas when I was a lawyer, but I find that people listen to me more as a judge,” he said. Ultimately, Donnelly believes having a lawyer “makes the system fair.”

Judge Marvin Aspen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois has a multipart program to help pro se litigants in his court that he believes can be applied anywhere. The first component is a help desk whose members offer procedural assistance like filling out forms but do not provide any research or appear in court with claimants. To date, the help desk has provided 1,200 consultations involving 500 litigants. The district court also offers a settlement assistance program. After 60 undertakings, the program boasts an impressive 70 percent success rate.

Aspen also offered the story of a centenarian friend who practiced law for many decades. At the retired jurist’s 100th birthday celebration, Aspen asked what his proudest achievement was. “He sat on the federal bench, he represented mobsters, he’s been to the Supreme Court a few times,” but, said Aspen, the accomplishment foremost in his mind was his body of pro bono work.

The program, “Pro Se But Not Alone: Promoting Access to Justice with Court/Public Interest/Private Practice Pro Bono Partnerships,” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation.

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