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There’s an old saying that a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. If so, there are a lot of fools these days in California. No one’s sure exactly how many unrepresented litigants are showing up at the state’s courthouse doors, but the increasing numbers have been alarming judges and lawyers for some time, and ideas to deal with the situation are gathering momentum. Recently, California Chief Justice Ronald George even mentioned the problem in his State of the Judiciary address, noting that the state Judicial Council is putting together an official task force on unrepresented litigants to seek a solution. The State Bar also decided to work on the same issue alongside a committee being appointed by the state’s Commission on Access to Justice. A couple of weeks ago, State Bar officials held the first of a series of workshops on pro per issues, aimed at improving legal services for unrepresented litigants. The state budget also contains $20 million in funds that can finance self-help centers in county courthouses — a concept already under way in some cities. “In California at the present time, there is a serious problem, because many people cannot afford an attorney,” State Bar President Palmer Madden said recently. “[That] forces them to either blunder along on their own or just plain denies them access to the legal system.” The hardest-hit portion of the justice system is in family courts, where more than 50 percent of the time at least one party has no lawyer. “In child-support cases, the situation is even worse,” a March 9 State Bar document noted. “In 84 percent of child-support proceedings, at least one party is unrepresented, and in more than 63 percent of these cases, neither side has an attorney.” The Judicial Council task force and others are also taking a close look at changing ethics and disciplinary rules to promote unbundling, which is also known as discrete task representation. It’s a concept whereby lawyers handle only a small part of the litigation for a client at less cost. “Oftentimes, that’s in the nature of attorneys preparing pleadings for litigants or making one court appearance for them,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Laurie Zelon, chairwoman of the committee being pulled together by the Commission on Access to Justice. “So we’re looking to see if there are rules we should be developing for attorneys who are doing unbundling.” Much of the studies will be devoted to modifying or eliminating rules that discourage partial representation or that expose lawyers to malpractice. “What are the barriers that exist and which are the appropriate barriers to eliminate?” asked Ronald Albers, a State Bar governor from San Francisco. “Some will be relatively easy to identify and some will take the cooperation of the judiciary, the legal community and the Legislature.” There also might need to be some educational efforts aimed at judges, especially on the issue of ghostwriting. That’s essentially when a lawyer prepares a pleading or some other document, but the client presents it in court as his own work. “There are mixed feelings on the issue among judges,” said Bonnie Hough, a senior attorney for the Administrative Office of the Courts. “The concern is, is it a fraud on the court?” One of the first cases to raise the issue occurred in a federal court in Colorado in 1994, when U.S. District Senior Judge John Kane Jr. took umbrage at a ghostwritten document. “Having a litigant appear to be pro se where in truth an attorney is authoring pleadings and necessarily guiding the course of the litigation with an unseen hand is ingenuous to say the least,” Kane wrote. “It is far below the level of candor which must be met by members of the Bar.” Other judges around the country, including one in San Diego, have taken issue with ghostwriting in the ensuing years. But attitudes might change as unrepresented litigants pile up in the courtroom. “What’s really critical is that there be a range of services available for low-income people,” said Mary Viviano, the State Bar’s special assistant for legal services outreach. “And some people can represent themselves adequately with access to the information they need.” State Bar and judicial officials hope to have some answers by the end of the summer. “Most of us in the profession care a lot about justice being done,” Judge Zelon said. “And if people are in court and the outcome is not based on the facts and the law, but on the fact that they were not able to effectively communicate their case, that’s bad for the justice system.”

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