Some people assume a lawyer is required to get a divorce. Others assume that most divorcing spouses hire an attorney to represent them. Neither is true. Self-representation is becoming increasingly common.
A fairly recent LA Times article https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-unrepresented-litigants-20190407-story.html addressed the increase in people representing themselves in civil court cases such as divorce. Following are some of the key points and figures from the article.
- An estimated 4.3 million litigants go to court in California each year without an attorney
- Three-quarters of all civil cases have at least one side unrepresented by an attorney
- Only 10% of family law and eviction disputes have lawyers on both sides.
The number of self-represented litigants swelled after the last recession and has not decreased since. They include not only poorer people but also middle-class people and young adults accustomed to learning how to do things from the internet.
In response, California courts have boosted their resources to assist people representing themselves. The courts have expanded self-help services. The state last year nearly tripled funding for self-help programs to $30 million. There is now a self-help center in every superior court in the state.
Nearly 1.2 million litigants in California are expected to take advantage of the self-help services this year.
Lawyers, paralegals, college students and recent law school graduates at self-help centers walk litigants through the legal process, explaining options, how to fill out forms, and how to file cases and move cases through various steps to completion, either by agreement, default or trial. Self-help staff are barred, however, from advising litigants on legal strategy and from recommending legal tactics.
The huge demand for help usually means long lines at the self-help centers. To respond to the demand, courts are increasingly relying on technology, including self-help pages on websites. Courts in Los Angeles and Orange counties are experimenting with software to help the unrepresented fill out legal forms. Los Angeles County runs about 450 self-help workshops a month.
For all these self-represented litigants, it falls to judges and other officials to demystify legal processes and expected decorum at court. Some courthouses have written tips for the self-represented, such as:
– Get plenty of sleep the night before your hearing;
– Arrive at least 30 minutes early;
– Dress appropriately;
– Don’t chew gum, eat or drink in court;
– Never raise your voice;
– Address the judicial officer as “Your Honor” or “Judge.”
Judges of course try to treat every litigant with equal respect, whether or not they have an attorney. They spend more time explaining things to the self-represented litigants who often don’t understand what a judge needs to know before making a ruling. In general, judges make a determined effort to offer each litigant a fair hearing.
Besides the self-help information and resources above, there are other professionals who can provide divorce assistance. These include paralegals, Legal Document Assistants, divorce mediators and Certified Divorce Financial Analysts. Their fees are normally significantly less than the cost of hiring an attorney to represent you.