If you are one of the almost two million New Yorkers who each year use the state courts without assistance of a lawyer (DIY justice!), you may have first-hand experience with the vast inefficiencies of the system. In fact, New York State for some time has been making efforts to streamline access to justice… attempting to enable access to the courts with a “DIY” process. DIY forms, DIY filing, DIY representation.
This isn’t particularly a new concept. Legal forms have always been accessible to the public. Enter the courthouse, fill out a form with the necessary information, file or dismiss a case! However, a DIY process will rarely enable true justice or streamline accessibility. DIY encumbers an already overburdened court system. And too often, DIY = DI-SASTER.
The right to self-representation has been protected in the United States since the country’s founding, and the breadth of this right has been debated all the way up to the Supreme Court. A person accused of a crime is entitled to representation, but is also entitled to refuse that representation. Criminal courts have decided that while perhaps unwise for an accused to refuse assistance of counsel, the court has no right to force a lawyer upon a defendant. In civil courts, those courts dealing with non-criminal matters including divorce and child custody, business disputes, tenant rights, and personal injury, courts where there is no such entitlement, some people choose to hire lawyers while others believe that self-representation is efficient, cost-saving, time-saving, and empowering.
In New York, where legal services are in high demand, representation can be quite costly, and many people involved in civil litigation choose to represent themselves. Most assume taking a DIY approach will save costs and save time.
This assumption might seem to make sense. However, DIY forms and self-representation are inefficient and often ineffective for a person seeking justice. DIY forms and self-representation are inefficient for the court system. DIY forms and self-representation tend to cost litigants substantially more time than if a lawyer had been used. In short, DIY can spell disaster, and the DIY approach has significantly contributed to New York’s years-long backlog in its civil court system.
Legal forms are not easy for most people to understand. They are difficult to fill out. Legal forms require that a person decipher complex legal language and understand confusing questions. Most types of legal matters involve the use of multiple forms, and these forms require precise answers that if incorrect or missing, will result in the form being rejected. In the absence of a properly completed and filed form, a DIY litigant cannot even take the first steps to enter the legal system and access justice.
Inside the legal system, DIY litigants with inadequate knowledge of rules and processes regularly consume hours of the court’s time by, among myriad other things, appearing without proper information, by making inappropriate or impossible requests of the judge, or by presenting “evidence” and arguments inefficiently and overlooking key points. Courts are rules-driven, and procedural rules are not flexible. Judges and clerks are regularly forced to postpone hearings once a litigant has already appeared in the courtroom due to faulty paperwork or missing parties. Postponements can be for periods of months. More importantly, because most DIY litigants are not versed in the nuances governing the presentation of facts, presenting and questioning witnesses, or even of making objections, the DIY litigant will not prevail in the courtroom or the case will be dismissed.
DIY filing and representation can have serious consequences. In matters where even a clear-cut matter can have a significant outcome, such as a child custody dispute or a business-related litigation, navigation of the legal system by a self-represented litigant can result in an unsatisfactory, unjust ruling that might take years to appeal. Failure to properly present a simple piece of evidence can result in lost custody. Failure to reply on time to a simple suit received from a business competitor can result in a lost trademark. Tip the scales in your favor and choose to work with counsel, whether just for filing paperwork or fully navigating the process. It’s more efficient and cost-saving than working to fix a bad outcomes after a DI-SASTER.
Any person involved in a legal matter should seek the assistance of appropriate legal advisors. Linnane & Associates is a multi-practice firm offering expertise and advice for a range of legal issues. Consult us for some guidance.
*For most recent updates to figures and research used herein, consult www.nscs.org
Kathleen Linnane is the Managing Partner of Linnane & Associates. Check back for our weekly blog updates about current legal issues of interest, and how changes and updates to the law might affect you and your community.