Nonlawyers used to represent themselves in only the simplest cases. Even that caused challenges for the court system, as trial judges had to slow down and explain procedural matters to these novice litigators.

But things are getting even more ticklish for the Judicial Branch, which now notes that a rising tide of self-represented parties is beginning to inundate the more complex world of the state Appellate Court. As a result, court officials at a recent Pro Bono Summit hope to recruit appellate attorneys to help them.

Chief Judge Alexandra DiPentima said nearly 30 percent of Appellate Court cases involve at least one self-represented party. They aren’t a factor in criminal cases, as the Office of the Public Defender provides counsel for low-income parties. But they are a growing presence in “family cases and other civil matters,” DiPentima told the audience of 80 in-house lawyers, large law firm partners and regular bar members who attended the summit in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Because the appellate court has “a more esoteric process” than Superior Court, self-representation can provide acute challenges, DiPentima said. “It impacts the appellate docket in the way an appeal proceeds, [in] how a brief is filed. It takes up a lot of the court clerks’ time, trying to help without giving legal advice [which isn't allowed]. It certainly does affect the docket.”

Chief Justice Chase Rogers has long lamented that the judicial system is straining under the weight of people who are representing themselves in court because they cannot afford lawyers. In her keynote address at the Judicial Branch’s second Pro Bono Summit on May 14, Rogers again called on the bar to offer more volunteer help to self-represented litigants.

“The problem is daunting. The numbers have not gone down since our last Pro Bono Summit in 2011,” Rogers said. “In family court, the percentage of cases with one unrepresented party stands at 85 percent. In civil [court], the percentage of cases with one represented party is 24 percent.”

The rising number of self-represented parties is a national trend. “The numbers are worse for other states; I guess we can take small comfort in that,” Rogers said. “It’s clear this is not going away anytime soon. We’re going to have to do everything we can to increase pro bono participation.”

Judges presiding over small claims courts or civil cases involving relatively simple matters can sometimes ask attorneys who are already in the courtroom to provide short-term, pro bono help if a self-represented party needs assistance or a question answered.

But, DiPentima said, “we don’t have many appellate lawyers loitering around the court waiting to be picked for appellate help.”

One summit panelist was Paul Knierim, who is Connecticut’s probate court administrator. He agreed the trend toward self-represented parties has been on the increase in recent years. “About 59 percent of our cases have no attorney present at all,” Knierim said. “I would say nearly all of our cases have one party who is not represented by an attorney.”

The “crisis” in probate court comes not in cases involving simple wills, but in those matters that focus on civil rights issues. As an example, Knierim cited conservatorship hearings. Often, an adult will petition the court to have an elderly parent who cannot care for himself or herself placed in a nursing home or under a doctor’s care. At those hearings, the state provides an attorney for the elderly family member, but not for the person making the request.

The same goes when mental health or substance abuse is an issue and there’s an attempt to force a family member into treatment. It can be “daunting,” said Knierim, for the parties seeking treatment for a loved one “to find their way through in those cases, with burdens of proof, evidentiary matters, and facing an attorney in court.”

Cummings & Lockwood recently launched a program in Hartford and Stamford in which the firm handles up to six probate cases at a time. Court administrators are hoping more firms might get involved and expand the services to other parts of the state.

At the first Pro Bono Summit, which drew about 130 lawyers, court officials highlighted the need for pro bono services and made sure that managing partners and corporate law department heads were engaged in a discussion about how their organizations might help. A number of programs came out of the initial summit, including a domestic violence clinic sponsored by Robinson & Cole and a veterans outreach initiative that has been supported by Halloran & Sage and other firms. Other efforts have focused on family court and housing matters.

This second summit was intended to build on that momentum, said Superior Court Judge William Bright Jr., who chairs the Judicial Branch’s Pro Bono Committee. With that in mind, the Judicial Branch asked law firms to send their “rising stars” to the summit. “We got this group of up [and] coming stars to discuss the problems and look to create new pro bono programs,” Bright said. “The next step, over the next several months, is that we are going to see how they are doing.”

Bright agreed that a pro bono initiative is needed to deal with the Appellate Court situation. “We’d like to institute programs to work with self-represented parties, to navigate them through the Appellate Court rules and procedures,” he said.•