Bexar County commissioners terminated a short-lived program to aid people representing themselves in family law and other matters after an outcry by solos and other lawyers.
On Jan. 22, the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved a plan, championed by 407th District Judge Karen H. Pozza and San Antonio Bar Association (SABA) leaders, to fund a self-help center in the law library of the Bexar County Courthouse for pro se filers.
The center, which would have offered only limited legal assistance for pro se filers and would not result in the formation of attorney-client relationships, was to be staffed by two attorneys and a clerk and funded by adding $11 to the county’s fee for filing a suit. The idea, Pozza says, was to offer basic assistance to the approximately 40 to 50 would-be pro se filers who show up at the courthouse daily, often with incorrect forms downloaded or purchased off the Internet.
But the approval of the center led to an uproar among solos and other attorneys who practice family law in Bexar County courts. As a result, on July 22, a 4-1 majority of the commissioners court reversed the earlier vote, ending funding for the program before it began operations and laying off two attorneys and an administrative assistant hired to staff the center, Pozza says.
County Judge Nelson W. Wolff says the SABA should have built a consensus among the family law bar before bringing the proposal to the commissioners court. “Only a small minority within the bar association supported it,” he says.
“This thing was trotted out in a manner that was well intentioned but flawed,” says Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, a veteran family law solo who attempted to mediate between the two sides once concerns over the program’s passage began to surface. Commissioners “are concerned that we not give out free legal services to people who can afford them,” he says, referring to the fact that the program does not restrict access to its services on the basis of income.
Lyle Larson, the only commissioner who voted to retain the program, says the self-help center met a need articulated by most of the county’s district court judges and “was not something put together in haste.” Larson hopes the commissioners court will revisit the issue in the next few months.
The other two commissioners did not return one telephone message each seeking comment before presstime.
The program’s main backer is disappointed by the turn of events and hopes another solution can be found to aid pro se filers.
“I’m absolutely blindsided by the response, disappointed and stunned,” says Pozza. “There is a huge need to address this situation.”
Pozza says the majority of people who show up at the courthouse as pro se filers are low-income and cannot afford an attorney but need help with family law matters.
“We are here to make the system work for the public,” Pozza says. “It is not here to serve us.”
But opponents are elated by the commissioners court’s reversal of its earlier authorization of the program. “I think they did the right thing,” says John A. Longoria, a former county judge, county commissioner and state representative. He now practices family and criminal law as a solo. “It’s a misuse of taxpayer dollars,” he says.
With more than 200 attorneys signing a petition against the self-help center, the reasons for opposing it varied, ranging from resistance to offering pro se filers any help navigating the civil court system to limiting such aid to the needy.
While acknowledging that the law allows people to represent themselves, Longoria says he believes pro se filers are akin to people who attempt to self-diagnose their medical state rather than go to a doctor. Encouraging that kind of behavior is a mistake, he says.
Longoria says that instead of a self-help center, legal aid organizations should be better funded so they can accept more family law cases.
Alfredo N. Saenz Jr., a solo who is one of two attorneys who initially helped spearhead the opposition, says that any self-help center needs an income restriction, so well-off people capable of hiring an attorney cannot avail themselves of the center’s services. Those services would have included help finding the correct forms, review of proposed orders and assistance in getting on the docket of the proper court.
“There’s no need to hire staff to represent middle-class people,” says Saenz, a 35-year veteran attorney who practices family, probate and criminal law.
The Mexican-American Bar Association of San Antonio, comprised of many solos and small-firm attorneys, in April approved a resolution against the program for the same reason, says Clarissa Benavides, president of the organization. “There were no parameters for identifying who the services were going to go to,” she says.
Shirley A. Ehrlich, an opponent of the center, says business protection is a legitimate concern for struggling solos. If handling a straightforward divorce case could bring in $1,000 in fees, but that case is instead filed pro se with county assistance, “How much is that taking out of the pockets of young and struggling attorneys?” asks Ehrlich, a San Antonio family law solo. “The median income for solos is low,” she says. “That’s who is going to be impacted.”
But Pozza says, “Maybe I’m naïve, but I do not think this program would have caused lawyers to lose any business. I see these people every day, and they do not have money for lawyers.” Pozza says she also thinks the center could have resulted in some referrals to attorneys.
Adkisson says that from his experience as a family law attorney, some low-income people are able to obtain funds from relatives. If government assistance is offered, he says, the relatives do not come forward.
Pozza, who has been on the bench since 2000, is on the board of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. In 2002, she and 4th Court of Appeals Justice Phylis J. Speedlin co-founded the Community Justice Program (CJP), a monthly clinic that recruits volunteer attorneys to handle pro bono divorces. Laredo and counties in the Rio Grande Valley have copied the model. San Antonio’s CJP handles about 40 to 60 cases a month, Pozza says.
Despite the success of the CJP in San Antonio and elsewhere, Pozza feels more needs to be done. “The CJP is a fabulous effort,” she says, “but it cannot handle all of the need.”
Pozza says the daily presence of dozens of would-be pro se filers, most of whom are seeking divorces, is noticeable in the courthouse and slows down dockets.
Currently, Pozza says, Bexar County’s 13 district judges handle the influx by sending them to their sole staff attorney, Dinah Gaines, who provides forms and basic procedural assistance to pro se filers. But because Gaines must assist pro se filers, she has less time to do legal research and other tasks for the judges, Pozza says.
Gaines says she and interns from St. Mary’s University School of Law screen the would-be pro se filers and only assist filers whose matters are uncontested. They review the filers’ proposed orders and help them get a court setting on a daily pro se docket.
She encourages the others to talk to an attorney but will tell them where forms can be located in the county law library. One in every 2,000 pro se filers are people who are able to afford an attorney, she estimates.
Gaines, a former attorney for the U.S. Department of Energy, says the number of pro se filers has increased fivefold since she began her job more than two years ago, from about 10 a day to 40 to 50 a day. “There’s enough work for three of me,” she says.
Turning to Travis County
Pozza researched programs assisting pro se filers and decided that Travis County’s self-help program was a good model for Bexar County.
Lisa Rush, manager of the Travis County Law Library, says the county’s self-help centers – one located in the public law library and another in the courthouse – have existed for six years. The centers are not controversial, Rush says, and they assist about 175 people a day, 75 percent of whom are pro se filers.
“The legal community sees what a tremendous difference it has made for the uncontested dockets,” she says.
Rush says Travis County’s program is budgeted at $140,250 and employs three part-time attorneys, who interview would-be pro se filers, hand out court-approved forms and review the completed forms.
“It’s only for uncontested family law matters,” Rush says.
She also says some attorneys use forms provided by the centers to represent their clients, as well as using the centers’ copiers and free Westlaw electronic legal research resources. Courthouse self-help centers are more common in other states, Rush says, especially California.
Increasing numbers of pro se filers have become an issue in courthouses statewide and nationally. [ See "DIY Justice," Texas Lawyer , April 14, 2008, page 1.]
Based on Travis County’s program, Pozza, Speedlin, then-SABA president Allan K. DuBois and Jimmy Allison, executive director of the bar association and director of the county law library, put together a proposal for Bexar County commissioners. The SABA manages the library for Bexar County.
Pozza and other officials met with each commissioner. “They were very receptive,” she says. “All five of them were positive about it, and then it was approved.”
SABA leaders supported the program from the outset, although they did not formally endorse the center until June, says Victor H. Negrón Jr., the bar association’s current president.
“I’m passionate about it,” DuBois says of the self-help center. He’s a San Antonio solo whose term as SABA president ended July 31. “Little did we know that it would result in so much controversy.”
The county began to charge the additional $11 fee for filing a suit in February, resulting in a total filing fee of about $270. The self-help center, budgeted at $182,000 per year, hired two attorneys and an administrative assistant, who attended training on how to assist prospective pro se filers offered by the CJP, a battered women’s shelter, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Catholic Charities.
Attorneys Carolyn Walker and Priscilla Camacho, hired by Bexar County to staff the center, believe it would have met a need and they are disappointed by the commissioners court’s about-face. Their jobs end on Aug. 19.
“I thought it was a great idea for Bexar County,” says Walker, a former staff attorney for Alamo Title Co. who is looking for a new position. “I’m just stunned that a few attorneys can hold the rest of the citizenry hostage.”
“I think they made a terrible decision,” says Camacho, a former family law solo, of the Bexar County Commissioners Court. “My hope is that some day a center of this nature will come back.”
Saenz says the first time he heard of the center was when he read a newspaper article about the program’s approval. He immediately took issue with the initiative’s lack of an income restriction. He also questioned the program’s legality and the possibility of exposing the county to liability.
“It was just a mess,” Saenz says. “It should never have been presented that way.”
Supporters say the center would comply with provisions in the Texas Local Government Code governing county-sponsored law libraries and is not a liability risk. The law on the subject is clear, says Lamont A. Jefferson, a partner in Haynes and Boone’s San Antonio office and a past SABA president who researched the issue for the bar association.
But opposition quickly swelled and friction developed between the SABA and opponents of the center when DuBois wrote in a May 15 letter to commissioners that the center was supported by the “mainstream” of attorneys in San Antonio, which opponents took as a slight.
DuBois has since apologized. “In no way did I intend any disrespect to them,” he says, referring to opponents of the center.
Negrón says the SABA is committed to increasing services for pro se filers.
“By killing the program, it doesn’t solve the problem,” says Negrón, a partner in San Antonio’s Kerr & Negrón who practices family law and serves as a mediator.
Negrón says the issue is one of the most divisive ever faced by the San Antonio Bar Association. “People are saying, ‘I’m not going to pay my dues.’”
Negrón, however, is seeking a détente. He wants to negotiate a solution with opponents and says that their concern – that services should not be provided to people who can pay – has merit.
“The bar association is ready, willing and able to sit at a table to discuss the issue,” Negrón says.