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Turning Pro Se 

click to enlarge University of Pittsburgh law students Jonathan Payne and Brittney Pepper discuss legal matters with professor Harry Gruener during a recent law clinic. - BRIAK KALDORF
  • Briak Kaldorf
  • University of Pittsburgh law students Jonathan Payne and Brittney Pepper discuss legal matters with professor Harry Gruener during a recent law clinic.

Shawna Jones has a 3-year-old daughter who lives with her, and an ex with no fixed address. She's looking for a way to keep the two of them apart, permanently. It won't be easy. She has never had a custody agreement. She got her daughter back from this man only a few days ago, after giving the child up for two months while she was jobless.

And she can't afford a lawyer. So, she's going to have to represent herself in court.

Across the country, judges are seeing more and more people just like Jones. While defendants in criminal trials are guaranteed lawyers, most with civil cases are on their own. The courts refer to them as "pro se" litigants -- those acting "for one's self."

Statistics are hard to come by, since states tally court records in many different ways. But the growth in pro-se clients has been noted from California to Massachusetts in recent years, and acknowledged by the American Bar Association. And the stakes are rarely higher than they are in child-custody cases and other decisions made in family court.

Which is why Eric Firkel is trying to help Jones sort her case out. He's a third-year Pitt law student who, with seven classmates, works a twice-weekly free legal clinic in Allegheny County's Family Division courts. 

By 9:15 on a brisk Thursday morning, 30 people have lined up at the court building Downtown, waiting for help -- if they can prove financial hardship. The students will be lucky if they can see half that number when the clinic ends that day, three hours later. One of those waiting is a mother with dual citizenship, worried that her ex will remove their child from the country. Another mother is trying to serve custody orders on a soldier currently in Iraq.

Jones -- not her real name -- sits next to Firkel in the unadorned clinic room among half a dozen grey carrels. She is not yet 20. She discovered the clinic when students helped her sister during her custody battle.

Firkel begins helping Jones fill out legal forms: one to get her court fees waived, another asking the judge for a confirmation of custody. If the judge grants her the latter motion, Jones won't need a hearing or anything else the county usually requires when parents split up.

Firkel asks her how much fight the father is likely to put up: "Do you think this will be contested?"

"Yes, my mother can verify that," Jones says. Firkel doesn't know what to say for a moment: He's not sure what Jones is talking about. 

"I don't know what 'contested' means," she finally admits.

They discuss how to couch her letter. "Petitioner recognizes the importance" of having the father in her child's life, Firkel reads. "Is that true?" he asks.

"No," Jones says. "But you can keep that in there if you want." 

Firkel laughs sympathetically. "I'm not going to keep that! This is a sworn statement."

He finishes with the forms, then heads to the next room to consult professor Harry Gruener, who teaches the University of Pittsburgh Law School class that staffs this clinic. 

"I would tell her we are not going to trash [her ex] in the pleading," Gruener advises. "But she should be prepared" to argue against him in court, he adds. "Some [judge] might say to her, 'If you were so concerned, why did you transfer the custody'" -- even for those few months?

 

If Jones is at all prepared to answer a judge's challenge, she'll be one of the lucky ones among a growing population being forced to represent themselves. 

"We see more people coming in for the Pro Se Assistance Program and we see more people doing more pleadings on their own," says Barbara Clements, coordinator of this county program that drafts volunteer attorneys to help in Family Court when the Pitt students aren't available. She's been at her post for a year. 

"I see more people who used to have lawyers and they can't afford them anymore," she adds. "We don't really have the capacity to see more people. But more people are coming in, trying to get assistance."

Clements has no statistics on the size of the phenomenon. "We never really kept records of the number of people we couldn't help," she says. But it has become noticeable enough to have been a campaign issue during the general election. Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Jack Panella, during his unsuccessful campaign for state Supreme Court, decried "an explosion in self-representation" in this state, particularly in Allegheny and Philadelphia counties -- and particularly among child-custody and -support cases.

"The recession has only made it worse," says Gruener, when the line of law students at his desk has abated. "The most underserved population has the same legal problems rich people can afford to have someone else figure out.

"A person comes in here, and he thinks he wants something fairly simple -- 'I want to see my kid.' But he has no idea how to proceed," Gruener explains. "'What do I do? What are my rights? And what are the obligations of the other party?'"

Plus, he adds, often the arguments in pro se cases "are not based on the law, but on how they feel. A lot of the litigants come in here and they have no idea what happened to them last time. All they know is they've been in front of different judges. It's like they've been to a number of car races. The first time they'll see a blur go by. The next time they'll see a color. They next time they'll catch a number."

Even the court forms now available online are something most non-attorneys "could never figure out," Gruener says. "It's like you doing your own surgery: You'd probably bleed to death. If they don't get any help, they often get discouraged and just abandon the system."

In the previous school year, working here two mornings a week, his students helped 370 cases, arguing for 70 of them in court -- even negotiating settlements. 

That afternoon, Family Division Judge Tom Flaherty has to play lawyer, essentially, for both sides in the pro se cases he sees. He interviews each person from the bench about the facts of their case -- and what they're trying to accomplish.

"So you want a hearing?" he asks one litigant who had tried to tell his life story. "You want to modify your support and you want to stop the alimony -- correct?"

Another young woman before Flaherty says, "I don't know what this is for." She seems surprised to learn her ex wants a paternity test.

 

Back at Eric Firkel's desk, he hands the printed forms to Shawna Jones.

"This'll put you in the driver's seat, so you'll have complete control," he assures her.

"That's the first reason I came down here," Jones says.

Across the room, another clinic client starts to shout about his ex's latest boyfriend. "The guy who picked up my child was on Megan's Law!" he says. "And she's still dating him!" He rants at her as if she were actually in the room: "You can smoke all the crack you want -- just give me my son!"

"Crazy," mutters Jones.

"Actually," says Firkel, "this is just a regular day."

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