Christine O’Sullivan (Gary Lewis)
It’s been nearly six months since the state launched a pilot program that allows lawyers to handle portions of family law cases and then bow out.
And while state court officials say it’s too soon to pass judgment on the success of the limited-scope representation initiative, private practice lawyers and legal aid leaders are weighing in with observations about the program and thoughts about making it better.
Since mid-January, when the limited-scope representation program was launched statewide, lawyers have been hired 227 times to provide representation in portions of family law cases, such as custody hearings. The number represents nearly 8 percent of the roughly 3,000 new family court cases filed during the same period by people who are representing themselves.
According to Judicial Branch statistics, the largest number of limited-scope representation cases have been in Stamford, with 38 to date, followed by Hartford, with 34 cases. The rest have been relatively evenly divided between the Bridgeport, Norwich, New Haven, New Britain and Middletown judicial districts.
Still, state court officials are optimistic. Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Bozzuto, the state’s administrative judge for family law matters, said the number of people using the limited-scope program have been “well beyond our expectations.” But, she added, “there does need to be more types of cases where this is offered, to increase the number of litigants who possibly could take advantage of limited-scope representation.”
The limited-scope representation program for family court cases was piloted last year in the Bridgeport area. In January, it was expanded statewide. The program is designed to help people with limited resources who can’t afford to pay a lawyer to handle their entire divorce or custody case. Court officials hope it will ease docket backlogs created by the proliferation of self-represented parties. By some estimates, as many as 80 percent of all family law cases have at least one self-represented party.
If successful, the practice, also known as unbundling, could be expanded to include other civil legal matters, court administrators say. “This will ultimately get more lawyers involved in helping to handle what are now pro se cases,” said Superior Court Judge Raymond Norko, who served on a committee that studied the feasibility of limited-scope representation.
Attorney Christine O’Sullivan, who practices in Westport, was recently hired to handle a custody issue for a father who had been representing himself. The father needed help at a hearing in which visitation was in dispute. “Normally, if you are talking to a lawyer about a custody issue or a divorce, you are talking about spending thousands of dollars,” she said. “Custody cases can drag on for years,” at a cost of $300 an hour.
But on a limited basis, she was able to resolve the problem for her client with a few court appearances, charging her client less than $2,000.
“I like the new program,” she said. “I think handling these cases can be very useful for lawyers because you’re able to get in and get out. Sometimes people think they can use their lawyers as a sounding board, but that can drag on and get expensive.”
O’Sullivan has become involved in a handful of limited-scope representation cases, all through referrals. She said there is a trick to being successful with handling only part of a person’s case. “The trick is, you really have to understand what the person wants from the limited appearance,” she said. “You have to give 100 percent on whatever it is you’ve agreed to do. It’s 100 percent of a limited basis, but it’s whole hog service. People need to know what you’re doing, exactly. You have to write a very careful agreement with your client, so it’s clear from the onset.”
The Law Tribune contacted a number of family law practitioners who noted on their websites a willingness to provide limited representation. However, most said they have not yet been approached by clients to perform such services.
“I thought there would be a big need, but I haven’t seen that,” said Kevin Black, who practices family law in Wilton. “I think it’s an excellent way to help people with individual legal issues. And I think it would be good for attorneys too, because you could avoid some of the nonsense that comes with full representation, dealing with difficult personalities [of opposing counsel or parties] and the like.”
“I would love to do them,” he added.
Under the program, attorneys are required to fill out a form, which describes the specific tasks or proceeding for which they have been hired.
When attorneys have completed those tasks, they file a completion of limited appearance form that is provided by the court. At the moment that form is filed, judges are required to allow the attorneys to step aside.
Before the program started, some attorneys expressed concern that judges would be reluctant to grant the release. But state officials say the release process is so automatic that judges have no influence over when an attorney withdraws from a case.
“The court is completely outside of that action,” said Bozzuto, the administrative judge. “When the lawyer’s work is done and they file a certificate of completion, there is no hearing, there’s no authorization or discretion of the judge.”
State court officials will monitor the program and complete a report in December. That study will help the Judicial Branch determine what types of staffing and other resources might be needed to expand the program into other legal areas. Some of those areas being discussed include foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes and immigration law cases, all of which have a large number of self-represented litigants.
“No one I’ve talked to has heard any problems with limited-scope representation in the cases so far,” said Steve Eppler-Epstein, the executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, which provides free representation to low-income people. “It seems to be progressing carefully, but well.”
Eppler-Epstein said his organization is currently evaluating the program to see if the legal aid agency has clients or perspective clients who could represent themselves, with legal aid lawyers jumping in to assist as needed. Additionally, he said, the legal aid programs throughout the state are currently seeking grant funding to create a referral program that would link private lawyers with limited-scope pro bono cases in family court.
Edward Jurkiewicz, a family law practitioner with Lawrence & Jurkiewicz who mostly appears in the Hartford and Litchfield courts, has handled a few cases on a limited-scope basis. “I have seen examples of LSR representation working well, and poorly,” he said.
Jurkiewicz said he has been hired to handle “quick and final” motions, such as a request to modify visitation. “I think this worked well for both lawyer and client. The client knew she was getting competent representation, for a predictable fee,” he said. “I knew that my obligations were not open-ended.”
However, he noted, the current rules allow lawyers to provide partial representation in dissolution of marriage cases “up to but not including trial.”
This can create a possible “pitfall” that might need to be addressed, Jurkiewicz said. “After discovery and resolution of salient issues, the vast majority of divorce cases settle, as they should,” he said. “But a cogent, fair settlement depends on competently laying the groundwork. The best way to settle a case is for your opponent to perceive that you are prepared to try the case, if necessary. And the only way to create that perception is to be, in fact, prepared to try the case.”
Allowing lawyers to handle a matter up to, but not including, trial can harm a client’s chance of prevailing, he said. “I think people need to be careful and know what they are doing. If it’s used for truly limited purposes, a quick hearing, that’s fine,” Jurkiewicz said.
Kimberly Knox, the immediate past president of the Connecticut Bar Association, said she hasn’t heard much one way or the other on whether members of the bar are embracing the limited-scope representation concept. It’s a case of “wait and see,” said Knox, who noted that many of the regulations were borrowed from a similar program in Massachusetts.
“I think a year is going to be used to work out any issues,” Knox said. “We have the benefit of not being the first state to have limited-scope representation.”•