The Silver Lining

As a soon-to-be 3L, the thought of finding a job in today’s economy is very overwhelming.  It’s not just the lack of jobs in the market that frightens me, but also the school loans that I will have to start repaying. 

When I started law school, I thought I might work in a law firm for a while to pay off a sizable portion of my loans and then pursue my real interest in public interest work. This line of thinking is common among my fellow students, and unfortunately, the reality of paying for a legal education does prevent many from taking public interest jobs. 

At an ATJ public hearing this past summer, a South Carolina Legal Services  (SCLS) attorney cited SCLS’ inability to attracted new law school graduates with better salaries as one of the barriers preventing SCLS from expanding its operations and providing more legal representation to the indigent of South Carolina.

While I’m sympathetic with the fact that many associates at large firms are losing their jobs, maybe the  economy will prompt law firms to restructure the way they compensate employees (i.e., smaller salaries in order to avoid layoffs), which in turn may lead more new law school graduates to accept positions in public interest work, knowing that they will not necessarily be passing up a much bigger and better salary that would help them repay student loans.

 Read more about this possible silver lining in this opinion piece in the New York Times.

Alex

SRL Divorce Packet Approved and ONLINE

EXTRA, EXTRA! Read all about it!

The South Carolina Supreme Court approves Self-Represented Litigant Simple Divorce Packet.

Click here to view the ORDER and here for the forms.

The packets were created by the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission, SC Bar and SC Legal Services; developed with Court Administration and CFS Project; and approved by the Family Court Judges Advisory Committee. 

The packet is also available on the “Self-Help Resources” tab on the SCJD homepage

These forms are FREE and may be downloaded at no cost.

-RFW

More SRLs: Are Lawyers too Costly or Simply Sign of Hard Times?

That’s the question coming out of Connecticut this week, see Connecticut Law Tribune article here. Whatever the answer, the numbers of Self-Represented Litigants or SRLs is on the rise. The trend isn’t limited to Connecticut either. Recent conversations with family court judges, clerks of court and masters-in-equity have indicated that South Carolina is also part of the trend.

The challenges faced by other court systems also mirror what is happening in South Carolina. SRLs are not familiar with procedures to meet minimal requirements such as notifying the other party or service of process. Even if they meet procedural requirements they may not understand some of the documents themselves. They may not even complete all the necessary forms.

Additionally, attorneys have a reputation for using their own language, also known as legalese. The phrases in legal documents often are in Latin, not English. The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission is working with the courts to ensure that court documents are written in Plain English whenever possible.

Clerks of Court in South Carolina have also noted the rise in SRLs. Members of the public often ask for forms, then ask for help completing them. Or they may ask for advice from the clerk of whether to bring the action. Clerks are wary of responding – not because they don’t want to help, but because they don’t want to overstep into the practice of law – the unauthorized practice of law. In South Carolina, there are established laws indicating that only attorneys licensed in South Carolina may practice law in South Carolina. Legal advice is considered the practice of law. The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission is also working to address this question by developing signage clearly indicating what clerks can and cannot do. And the Commission is working with a clerk of court work group to educate clerks and the general public about the fine line between advice and information.

Judges note that they too have ethical dilemmas. When SRLs appear in their courtrooms and miss relevant pieces of their cases, the judges want to help but they too have boundaries. They may not help one side to the detriment of another.

SRLs have arrived and South Carolina is working to address the issue of increased numbers of SRLs in the courts.

But it may take a little while.

Thanks for your patience.

-RFW

Yea Alabama!

For all of you who don’t know, “Yea Alabama” is  the University of Alabama’s (my alma mater) fight song.  However, I’m using this phrase  completely outside of its usual context, which is Crimson Tide football (although I have no problem using the phrase in that context at all).

Frequently, I become tired of hearing people criticize the state of Alabama and how “backwards” it is.   Here, however, is something progressive the state has done.  Check out page 2 of the Civil Right to Counsel Update.

In 2008, both Alabama and Louisiana signed into law statutes recognizing a right to counsel, not only where the state seeks to terminate parental rights, but also where the other parent seeks to terminate parental rights.  This is a great step forward, especially after hearing testimony at some of the S.C. Access to Justice Commission hearings from fathers who wanted to play a role in their children’s lives but who had problems securing their parental rights because of lack of funds.

http://www.civilrighttocounsel.org/pdfs/2008-10-13-newsletter.pdf

Also, as you may have seen in the issue linked above, the state of Alaska’s Supreme Court is poised to make similar determinations in the near future. The issue being whether Alaska’s constitution requires publicly funded counsel for  indigent parents in child custody procedures where the opposing party has private counsel.

Read here for the latest update:

 http://www.civilrighttocounsel.org/pdfs/2008-12%20Update.pdf

– Alex

Self-Represented Litigants Hit the Mainstream Media

SRLs Hit MSNBC News

MSNBC Headline:

THE HOME YOU SAVE COULD BE YOUR OWN: In foreclosure crisis, more Americans representing themselves in court

For quite a while now, this blog has been addressing the ever-increasing numbers of Self-Represented Litigants aka SRLs in the courts, even BEFORE the current economic climate. Now with record numbers of people losing jobs and homes and unable to afford legal representation, the numbers of SRLs have increased to the point where mainstream media is reporting it.

The South Carolina Access to Justice Commission continues to work on this issue within South Carolina and encourages YOU to contact us if you have an area of law that needs specific attention including producing user-friendly forms or training opportunities.

If at all possible, find an attorney to represent you.

Do not represent yourself unless it’s absolutely necessary.

 This is not to say that the Commission encourages people to go into Court unattended. If, at all possible, you can find an attorney to represent you, by all means do so.

We will continue to keep you up-to-date with innovations for SRLs in South Carolina, as well as national trends and developments as we learn of them.

-RFW

PS – This just in: article on law books for self-represented litigants – http://www.hometownannapolis.com/cgi-bin/read/2009/02_01-19/BUS

What’s wrong with this picture?

picture-frame-rfw-2

I found the following comment by “Dan” to an article posted by www.ctv.ca entitled “Canada’s top judge says justice often blockedhere.

Dan
I lost the car, the driver licence because I was registered with Family maintenance – no communication from them whatsoever – and the mother leaves the country and I always took care of the kids.
I lost because 

  • I cannot afford a lawyer.

  • I lost jobs also. Very soon I will be on the streets.

  • No laywer – the judges don’t want to listen.

Why did “Dan’s” words hit so hard?

Because the comments by “Dan” from Canada could easily have been written by “Carl” from Cowpens or “Collin” from Columbia. This past year, the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission conducted public hearings around the state to learn of barriers to justice by those living in or just above the federal poverty guidelines.

What did we hear?

  • We heard that transportation to the courthouse is a barrier, especially in rural areas.
  • We heard that many South Carolinians, including many who work, are unable to afford to hire an attorney.
  • We heard that when people lost their jobs or had medical emergencies, it completely depleted their savings and put them into debt.
  • We heard that South Carolina Legal Services attorneys with large caseloads having to decide whether to help a  19 year-old woman  living in a shelter and also a victim of domestic violence, recently beaten and raped by her husband and then sued for child custody OR an 82 year old widow who has been sued with a foreclosure action due to an unscrupulous, illegal predatory loan. (from actual testimony given at the Anderson regional public hearing)
  • And we heard more.

So why did “Dan’s” words hit so hard?

Because as an attorney and officer of the court, I took an oath to “assist the defenseless or oppressed by ensuring that justice is available to all citizens and will not delay any person’s cause for profit or malice” (see Lawyer’s Oath).

So why did “Dan’s” words hit so hard?

Because “Dan’s” words let me know that I need to continue to assist South Carolinians in need of access to legal representation and the courts. His words echo the words of so many South Carolinians who spoke at the hearings and many who did not who continue to believe that justice is simply a theory that has not, does not and will not be reality for him.

It’s time for justice to become real to people in need. It’s time for justice to become active. And it’s time for the legal community to come together to make it happen.

It’s time for “Dan’s” words to become obsolete.

-RFW

PS – Original Art by RFW/Paint

 

Allow me to introduce myself.

Hi All!

As per Robin’s introduction, my name is Alex Hegji, and I am a current 2L at USC School of Law. This past summer, I had the privilege of clerking for SCATJ, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience!

I have always had an interest in public interest work, and SCATJ was an invaluable learning experience for me. I had never realized just how many barriers  South Carolinians of low-income or of modest means face when trying to obtain justice for themselves.  The barriers reach far beyond the inability to finance legal representation.  They include the ethical dilemmas faced by clerks of court when they assist self-represented litigants, the difficulties in acquiring sign-language interpreters in the courtroom for the Deaf, and everything in between. 

Some of my favorite projects that I worked on this past summer included helping to author court-approved forms for self-represented litigants and attending public hearings, which provided first-hand insight into the problems manySouth Carolinians must address when entering the S.C. justice system.

I hope this blog will be helpful and provide all of you with a law student’s perspective on SCATJ’s work.

Alex