Sunday, July 26, 2009

Observations on Pro Se Cases, Part 2: You Got to Know The Territory

I know many come to this blog looking for advice on your case. Some of you are representing yourselves. While I cannot give you direct advice on your case, I can make some comments. Which is what this semi-ongoing set of "Observations" is all about.

If have never seen "The Music Man", you probably do not recognize the line about knowing the territory. Lawsuit have two sorts of territory: the law and the court.

The law includes the statutes and the rules and the case law. Not just one or other but all of it. Think of it as trying to work on a car and knowing only spark plugs without knowing an engine or a distributor cap. By the way, when you hire a lawyer that knowledge is one of several things included in your fee.

The self-represented greatly annoy me only when they do not make the effort to learn the law. Using the car metaphor again, it is like someone complaining about a car starting who do not put the car keys into the ignition.

What cannot be learned in the library - whether of brick or online - is knowing the courts. Yes, different courts treat pro se parties differently. I think our Madison County courts are liberal towards the self-represented while have seen the Ripley Circuit Court completely ignore a pro se party.

Recently, I had two separate conversation about the Marion County courts. Boiling both conversations down to the bare bones, they both had complaints about what lawyers call ex parte conversations. That is direct conversations with the parties without the other party being there.

The first conversation revolved around the judge refusing to sign the Decree of Dissolution. Judge did not explain what was wrong with the Decree. The person asked me to look at it and it appeared that the only problem was the lack of Child Support Worksheet. Now, I think the judge could have pointed out the rule requiring a Worksheet with every Decree without leaving the judicial role but that is just my opinion. The potential client did not like what I would charge him to fix the problem. I assume he has fixed the problem himself and gotten divorced - finally. This was a ssituation where the self-represented did not know the territory of the law and did not know how to get clarification from the judge.

The second conversation came from a fellow who admitted that he thought he could save money on an attorney for his custody case. He came from Michigan where he says he could talk to the judge. Not so in Indiana. (And I have doubts that Michigan judges allow unlimited ex parte conversations.) He found him stymied, frustrated and ultimately without custody of his child. He did not know how to handle himself before the court. Frankly, no one could learn this from reading but only from experience. Experience: another way of knowing the territory.

He admitted to me that he had fallen into a failure of most pro se parties of not asking questions but of arguing instead. Another aspect of knowing the territory is knowing how to handle one's self.

I feel some will think this is all self-serving but that thinking also misses the point. It is self-serving but not for the exact reason that might be expected. I do this work to make a living and it is true that I hope to attract clients. But there is more than merely making money on my mind.

I also hope to educate. Folks, you can do this work by yourself and you can make a complete hash of it. What I would prefer is prevent you making that complete hash. Cleaning up a mess that could have been prevented means more work for the lawyers - it may be even impossible to fix. By the way, that means all of your savings from not getting a lawyer in the beginning have now been lost.

The fellow with the custody case told me that he recognized now that he had not saved a dime. Looking at him, I also could see the toll that disappointment and stress had taken upon him.


Indiana Custodial Rights Advocates said...

Since I am not a lawyer I limit myself to trying to educate clients about the process and judges, some of the very things you just mentioned. It never ceases to amaze me that some people are not willing to spend a dime for help, be it me or a lawyer, prior to getting into court.
I hear from them after. "Can you help me do an appeal?" UGH!
Reminds me of when I did home remodeling and it costs people more than if they hired me from the get go. I have to tear out their work and redo it, not only so it would be functional but be within code also. Cheers-Stu

Sam Hasler said...

Penny-wise pound foolish but then, too, my side of the equation does not do a very good job of explaining why we are needed.