Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pro Se hassle

My two cents worth?

Those folks who will be using the pro se center are generally not those you want to have as clients anyway. They cannot afford legal representation and many will not pay out the full costs. Furthermore they are at risk for being bilked by less than ethical attorneys.

Having said that I think the Judges proposing the Pro Se Center have their heart in the right place but failed in promoting the idea amongst those it would affect the most. The lawyers who practice everyday in the Courthouse. The SA Bar needs to stop "looking down" at the solo practitioner who may not be a member of the bar association and reach out on this issue as well.

No, I do not know how the groups can reach a consensus on this issue but reach it they must to have it happen.

Thank you Ms. Allen for the coverage on this issue.

Elizabeth Allen: Pro se realities; political and otherwise

The pro se fight revealed a deep and long-rankling schism between groups within Bexar County's legal community.

Commissioners were impressed when District Judge Karen Pozza and Appeals Court Justice Phyllis Speedlin presented them with the proposal for a self-help center for pro se litigants. They unanimously voted in January to add $11 to the lawsuit filing fee to pay for two lawyers and a staff person to give people simple forms and/or redirect them to lawyers and other services.

That launched a rumbling that rose to a roar of backlash. And when the opposition started bending commissioners' ears, led by John Longoria, the process got political.

The four Democrats on the commissioners court today voted against the proponents, including the San Antonio Bar Association. They voted the desires of the opponents -- a higher number of lawyers in family law, the Mexican-American Bar Association of San Antonio, the San Antonio Black Lawyers Association, even the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

While some lawyers raised legal objections to the program, others admitted they were concerned about potential lost income. Even those not directly affected, like Andrew Del Cueto of the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said they were offended at having been left out of the process. One lawyer, Shirley Erlich, afterward called the SA Bar "arrogant" and said its leaders had called opponents "nonmainstream lawyers."

During the forum, where people spoke for and against (despite the likelihood that the decision had already been made), Appeals Court Justice Rebecca Simmons reminded commissioners that citizens have a constitutional right to meaningful access to the courts, to represent themselves and to equal justice under the law. But many stumble through the system with hand-written documents that don't address basic child support and visitation issues, and a standardized handout would help them as well as the judges who must deal with them.

Personal injury lawyer Frank Herrera said many of his clients are in that position. Up to 85 percent are Hispanic, he said, and many live in the precincts under commissioners Tommy Adkisson, Chico Rodriguez and Paul Elizondo.

"Commissioner Larson, I have very few in your district," Herrera acknowledged, to laughter.
Herrera supports the pro se center, he said, for everyone, "whether you're Donald Trump or Guadalupe Gonzalez living on Guadalupe Street."

A frustrated Pozza told commissioners that dozens of impoverished people come to the courthouse every day who have "been turned away at every door."
"To pretend that there's no need out there is fiction," she said. "We're having a debate among lawyers, and you need to be having a debate out there with your citizens because that's who is being affected."

Commissioner Paul Elizondo used the vote as an opportunity to lecture Pozza and her allies on how to play politics.
"The intent was good; it was wonderful," he said. "In this particular case, it's a matter of whose ox is getting gored."

"I think it's kind of insulting to treat an adversary, or to treat someone that thinks differently than we do, to treat their opinions in a way that makes less or little of their intelligence," he continued.

"A successful fighter of any kind has to learn to respect the adversary. Unfortunately, one side has not exhibited this in this discussion." Unless Thomas Jefferson appears in the room to suggest a miraculous solution, he said, "the rest of us mere mortals have to work this out."
County Judge Nelson Wolff said he saw the political writing on the wall -- having counted to three, one being Elizondo, two being Sergio "Chico" Rodriguez, and three being Tommy Adkisson, the commissioner and family law lawyer who had been tasked with leading the two groups to a compromise.

"Turns out this will happen today," Wolff said. "It is confusing to a number of us up here that don't practice law, but I think a significant mistake was made in the ability to reach out and talk to lawyers in the bar association." Wolff said he was swayed "to see this huge number of lawyers here who would be directly affected."

I was in the midst of writing about the commissioners' decision when a woman walked into my office.

She'd just come from the law library, carrying a packet on filing her own divorce. She was lost, or at least feeling so.

"They told me to talk to the lady downstairs," she said. She's trying to get an uncontested divorce from a marriage that has no property and no children, so theoretically it should be the simplest of cases. Her husband has said he doesn't have time to come down from Oklahoma where he's lived for the past two years, and she should just take care of it.

But even the process of getting her husband to sign a waiver so she can proceed without him is intimidating, the library book on the process seems complex, and the feeling of wandering around the courthouse late in the afternoon, not sure of the next step, is overwhelming.

"It's so easy to get married," she said, "and so hard to get a divorce."