From the Chicago Tribune:

Recession forces more to act as own lawyer

Observers warn that courtrooms aren’t made for amateurs

By John Keilman

Tribune reporter

August 5, 2009

When Marsha and Larry Lipsky wanted to evict a troublesome tenant from their Arlington Heights home, they consulted a few attorneys but couldn’t afford fees that ran from $500 to $5,000.

So they did what a lot of people with legal trouble are doing these days: They became their own lawyers.

“I was a nervous wreck since yesterday,” Marsha Lipsky, 67, said after presenting her case to a Rolling Meadows judge and winning an order for the tenant to leave. “I was so afraid. … But we survived. The judge, she was fair about it.”

Legal service has never come cheap, but lawyers, judges and other experts say that for many people the recession has made it a nearly impossible expense. That has created a surge of litigants who must navigate the often-bewildering justice system by themselves.

Advocates and court officials have responded with expanded advice desks, instructional Web sites, even plans to connect litigants with law students by computer. But the trend still alarms many observers, who say courtrooms weren’t made for amateurs.

“In a complex domestic relations dispute or commercial dispute, it’s kind of like trying to do surgery on yourself,” said Bob Glaves of the Chicago Bar Foundation, which funds numerous legal assistance programs. “If you’re not trained in these things, you have no chance.”

Anyone facing jail time for a criminal offense is guaranteed legal help, but that’s not true for civil cases, which include everything from foreclosures to lawsuits over unpaid credit card bills.

That leaves many low- and middle-income people squaring off against professional attorneys who represent banks, collection agencies and other deep-pocketed organizations.

Cook County Associate Judge Thomas More Donnelly, who until recently ran a courtroom for those fighting wage garnishments and frozen bank accounts, said such contests are often glaring mismatches.

He recalled cases in which defendants didn’t know about a state law that allows debtors to keep up to $4,000 safe from creditors. He would tell them about it, but if they didn’t understand what he was saying, he would have to drop the matter lest he cross the line separating impartial judge from advocate.

“It would be so distressing to me,” he said. “There are things that are known to everyone in the courtroom except the debtor.”

The imbalance is hardly new — a study 20 years ago showed that low-income people in Illinois received no help for 4 out of 5 legal problems — but as the downturn floods courts with hard-luck cases, advocates say it has become more obvious than ever.

The Chicago Legal Clinic, which runs a free legal advice desk in the Daley Center for people facing foreclosure, has seen its clientele explode over the last two years. Consequently, wait times to see an attorney have risen to about two hours.

Anntoinette Brown, 47, of Calumet Park had to take the entire morning off from her job as an administrative assistant to ask which opaquely titled piece of paper she needed to file to stave off the loss of her home: Was it a “verified answer to complaint to foreclose mortgage” or an “appearance and jury demand”?

It would have been an easy question for a lawyer — the answer, she was finally told, was to file them both — but Brown said: “As soon as you call an attorney, they want this and that. If I had the money, I could have used it to pay the mortgage.”

Other legal advice desks are swamped too. The non-profit group Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services, which guides low-income people facing such misfortunes as wage garnishment or eviction, has seen demand for its services rise nearly 40 percent over the last year.

Patricia Wrona, the program’s director of legal services, said many clients come in after trying to handle things on their own.

“It is our view that to have an attorney review the situation for a client is a critical step,” she said. “Part of the [self-representation] problem is people thinking, ‘I can get some forms from a clerk and fill them out’ — and that is often not the case.”

Many, though, have no choice but to go it alone, so some efforts use technology to improve a novice’s courtroom odds.

Four years ago, Illinois Legal Aid Online established a Web site to educate people entering the system. Traffic has increased steadily and is now up to 80,000 visits a month.

Executive Director Lisa Colpoys said the site will evolve in September, when volunteer law students will be available for online chats. The organization also has helped establish computer-driven self-help centers around the state, where law librarians and others help with queries.

Today, though, many people are still learning about their rights and proper court procedures from the judge hearing their case.

Carol Butcher, unable to afford a lawyer, represented herself in a lawsuit against an insurer she said wasn’t offering enough money to replace her stolen car.

The case went to trial in Rolling Meadows last month, and though Judge Thomas Roti was patient with Butcher’s occasionally rambling narrative, his tolerance ended when she interrupted him several times.

“I’ve shown you how to lay a foundation in the case,” he said. “I’ve bent over backward for you. I’m not going to give you a law school lesson on evidence. You argue with me continually. … If you were an attorney, you would be in contempt of court.”

Butcher won the case, but the jury awarded her only $50 — far less than the $10,000 she had been seeking. Like any good lawyer would, she said she might appeal that amount.

Other litigants, though, have found that as helpful as it might be to have an attorney, it’s even better to be lucky.

Gerard Castor, 49, of Dolton was at the Daley Center to ask for relief from a wage garnishment of $299 every paycheck. He ran up debt opening two clothing stores in an Evergreen Park mall — stores that faded quickly, he said, when one of the mall’s anchor tenants moved out.

He had come to court with little more than a plea for mercy. But the attorney for the debt collector wasn’t there, and Judge Patrick Sherlock agreed to lower Castor’s payments to $175.

“It’s better to have a lawyer,” Castor said outside the courtroom. “But it worked to my advantage that the other [attorney] didn’t show up.”

Freelance reporter George Houde contributed to this report. jkeilman@tribune.com

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