VANCOUVER, Wash. — More cash-strapped defendants have been acting as their own attorneys since the economy tanked, clogging courts in southwest Washington as they try to traverse a complex legal system.
The uptick in cases is anecdotal, but mirrors a national trend of people representing themselves in federal court, statistics show.
Complicating the effect is a lack of resources in Clark County to guide the self-represented litigants through the labyrinthine judicial system, members of the local legal community told The Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.
Self-represented cases take about twice as long to be resolved, the newspaper reported Sunday.
“What we are seeing today is unprecedented,” Clark County Superior Court Judge James Rulli said, “and it all came as a result of the economic downturn, when people couldn’t afford an attorney. And they still can’t.”
There are several resources available to defendants representing themselves, including the Clark County Court Facilitator’s Office. The office helps them find, fill out and file the proper court forms and assists with scheduling a court appearance. But court facilitators are not allowed to give legal advice or help with a case’s strategy.
The number of defendants seeking guidance on filing a court case is so overwhelming that many days a week the county’s three facilitators have to turn away a line of people.
In a move to simplify the process, local judges have discussed removing some of the Latin terms, such as “pro se,” from court forms, schedules and hearings.
Many people will represent themselves in family law cases. In 2012, about 2,741 family law cases were filed in Clark County Superior Court, according to Washington Courts statistics, and most of them were self-representation cases, Rulli said.
“They have to steer their way through trial without any experience,” Rulli said. “We try to educate them with handouts on what they have to do for trial. We are doing everything we can to make sure they have their day in court.”
A family law attorney costs about $200 per hour, Vancouver attorney Josephine Townsend said.