Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Self-help: An example of what can go wrong

So you want to handle your case by yourself and save all that money in attorney fees? Here is a cautionary story: IN THE MATTER OF J.H., MINOR CHILD (PDF format). The mother appeals when the court gives custody to father. More importantly, mother appeals without an attorney. The Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure are complicated enough but the Appellate Rules increase in complication.

Mother lost her appeal but lost in such a way that she now has to pay the father's attorney fees:

Having found that Mother committed both procedural and substantive bad faith, we order her to pay Father’s appellate attorney fees in this matter. We hereby remand to the trial court for a determination of Father’s appellate attorney fees.
As the Court of Appeals points out, appellate attorney fees are not to be granted willy-nilly. While this case cannot be cited a precedent, I do think the opinion gives a good example of why you need a lawyer. (I think she also represented herself at the hearing but the Court of Appeals' opinion does not make this clear. I make the assumption based on the lack of objections mentioned in the opinion.)

Besides the technical skills (and the not so technical skill of reading the applicable rules), lawyers provide an objective view of the case. Many clients hate that from their lawyers - they expect advocacy equates with slavish engagement with all of the client's engagement. However, slavishness is not our job. We are there to present the best case we can for our clients and that may mean dropping the weaker arguments.

With appeals, what I have just written is even more important. With my last appeal, I had a client who had an emotional need for including all the arguments presented to the trial court in the appeal. Somewhat foolishly, I tried to accommodate her. I could (unlike the mother in the case above) cobble together a cogent argument but it took my time away from what I thought was the best argument and diverted the attention of the Court of Appeals. Of course, we got nowhere and she is no longer a client.

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