Sunday, April 19, 2009

Representing Yourself

A few weeks ago I wrote about having observed that many people are being forced into representing themselves because they have jobs and don't qualify for being appointed a public defender but at the same time don't have enough money to cover their bills and pay for retained counsel. It turns out that my observations are a trend that has caught the attention of the New York Times. They report, in an April 9, 2009 article, that the number of unrepresented people appearing in courts is up by as much as 10%.

This is something that we need to address. People are having their rights denied simply because they don't know how to properly present their cases to the court. Judges tend to treat them exactly as they would a lawyer. If they don't know the magic words to invoke introduction of evidence that evidence stays out. Even if it should be admitted.

The Tennessee Supreme Court and the various bar associations here have established an equal access to justice program that is designed to encourage more lawyers to provide pro bono services. But is that enough?

Probably not. Most attorneys simply can't afford to do a lot of pro bono. We do try. I handled a full blown child custody trial not long ago and only charged $1,000.00. That's not true pro bono, but I did basically donate several thousand dollars worth of my time. I also try (and am one of the few who do) to work with people and work out payment plans, even on criminal cases - although that may have to stop.

This is a challenge that needs to be addressed by our political leaders. More needs to be done than just asking lawyers to do more free work. Believe me, I'd do it if I could. I love the law and it is my nature to want to help people. I just can't do it and make a living at the same time.


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