How Much Justice Can I Afford?

Knowledge is power, and the pro se litigant is often unarmed as they enter the arena filled with skilled gladiators, unless they have learned the rules of the game. Clearly, access to justice for the pro se litigant is available, with Judges and Magistrates giving the pro se litigant every opportunity to be successful. However, regardless of how many opportunities are presented to the consumer, the famous claim of old, “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client,” often applies, unless he understands the Rules of Evidence and Procedure.

"Brief Service" Volunteer Paralegal

As a business owner, former legal aid volunteer, and paid paralegal, I have put together the process for legal access for the pro se litigant. As a volunteer at Legal Aid, my time turned into a “Brief Service” paralegal assisting rejected applicants. I regularly saw people fall into the gray area of not meeting the State's indigency guidelines, yet lacking the financial resources to hire an attorney. The high costs associated with acquiring justice, still prevent many from gaining what is their right.

I soon began to see the numbers were far greater than a few volunteers could handle, and that indeed many of the rejected applicants while unable to afford the higher costs of hiring an attorney, could easily afford a document preparers fee.

Every Citizen Should be Able to Navigate the Laws of the Land

While researching I discovered that between the date of Andrew Jackson's inauguration in 1825 and the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the tradition that every citizen should be able to navigate the laws of the land was at its highest. Restrictions prohibiting Non-lawyers' representation of others were almost nonexistent. Today, none are more surprised than attorneys to find that over the last twenty years, citizens have made great strides in claiming their constitutional right to participate and be heard in the legal decisions that affect their lives. Increasing numbers of consumers are making the decision to file pro se.

Can Consumers Find Answers?

Can the consumer find the answers they need to adequately self represent?

Individual family law forms are available online at the Florida Supreme Court website. And forms packages are available for purchase at most county clerk's offices. The consumer is expected to know which forms to purchase and how to file them. The Courthouse Clerks, including the self-help staff, are prevented from instructing the consumer. The clerks of court are prohibited from selecting forms for pro se litigants because, doing so, might be considered the unlicensed practice of law.

The court house staff cannot recommend a lawyer or legal document preparer service but many offer resources to find a lawyer or legal document preparer by suggesting:

Look for a lawyer in the phone book, on the web, or call the Lawyer Referral Service of the Florida Bar Look for a legal document preparer service in the phone book Go to Legal Services.

There are pro se forms available on this site:

Cumbersome Application Process

The application process to Legal Services is not a quick fix. Consumers cannot go to Legal Services and speak with an attorney, nor make an appointment to speak with one, unless and until the consumer has filed an application and the application has been accepted..

In making an application, there can be no conflict of interest, such as the adverse party having already applied, or has an open unrelated case. Qualifying at Legal Services involves several steps.

An application is submitted, including the income of applicant and all other individuals in the home, regardless of relationship to the applicant.

The application goes before an intake committee of attorneys, who decide if the case will be accepted.

An acceptance or rejection letter is sent out within approximately two weeks after application.

Accepted cases receive an intake letter. Rejected cases receive an advice letter.

Many are Turned Away

Legal Services is a non profit corporation, therefore funding determines the numbers an office is able to accept. Over one hundred applications are taken each week; then these applications are prioritized for attorney representation. Many of the applications are rejected due to caseload, financial ineligibility, or deemed simple enough for the applicant to proceed pro se. A small number of rejected cases may be recommended for “Brief Service” if the agency has volunteer help.

During “Brief Service” the consumer meets with a volunteer paralegal and is given assistance in filling out their legal form(s) to file pro se. There is no representation, and no advice given by the paralegal.

Our area has a “First Saturday Clinic” where attorneys choosing to work Pro Bono provide legal advice and client representation in most areas of civil law. This is an ideal avenue for the pro se litigant to access free attorney advice before filing. Also, calling the Florida Bar Association, allowsthe consumer a one half hour advice session for only $25.

Confusion for the pro se litigant may increase when asked to submit a Notice or Motion during a case. Some forms for Notices and Motions are available on the Florida Supreme Court website, however no advice is found for amendments and various other motions.

Consumers Must Learn the Rules of the Game

“Today's consumer needs to be well versed in the rules of the game if they are to have a fighting chance at gaining justice.”

Despite a significant increase in the amount of pro se litigants and defendants, consumers still face many obstacles as they try to navigate the unfamiliar court system, which has been designed with legal counsel in mind. Without expert knowledge of substantive laws, the Court can be a very confusing and lonely place.

At my business, we gather customer information, and typically prepare a full set of documents. We provide to the customer a written guide on the protocols of filing pro se, as well as access numbers to the Florida Bar, Florida Supreme Court Website, and Self help links. Obviously we steer clear of giving any advice.

Pro Se Assistance in Canada

Our disclaimer and retainer states that, based upon information given, a document preparer may suggest the customer seek legal counsel. We pride ourselves on perfection, patience, and understanding. We pray that customers leave our office with a more positive frame of mind by having had their story validated. And we hope their goals will be realized and they can find peace of mind after giving the facts they required; and seeing their facts entered into their documents.

By comparison, in the Province of Ontario, Canada, paralegals are licensed and regulated the same way that lawyers are. A paralegal license allows paralegals to provide permitted legal services to the public and appear before certain lower level courts and administrative tribunals. To note, not all Provinces in Canada require certification. A paralegal may prepare documents for the pro se litigant from his/her own business without being required to work under the supervision of an attorney.

The Ontario Court system also offers a document preparation program for the public at the Clerks office. This is a relatively new feature, and not widely used as yet.

When I discovered that fact, my first thought was, “ I'd be out of work if that happened here,” my second, “ why isn't that available here?”

The Canadian Legal Aid system is generally available for criminal, family and immigration issues.

Pro Se Assistance in the UK

In the UK,the lack of local legal profession/judiciary oversight means that the definition of paralegal encompasses non-lawyers doing legal work, regardless of who they do it for. It appears paralegals have a much broader scope of working on behalf of the individual, based on a common law right of British citizens to select their representatives. Far more Paralegal/Law Clerks start their own business, often supervising staff with similar or limited training.

We recognize that sufficient information to file a suit is available for the most diligent consumer. A more detailed approach with information regarding which forms to choose, and forms more clearly designed are neccesary if the general population is to be successful.

About the Author

Author of this article, Judith Legare, is the owner and operator of Ufile-Documents in Panama City, Florida. She continues to volunteer for her local legal aid society; take classes to further her education; and prepare documents for family law, small claims, bankruptcy, and more. You can find more information about Ms. Legare in the member directory on this site. She is listed in Bay, Calhoun, and Gulf Counties.