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Pro Se or Pro Bono?
Forms and booklets can help self-represented litigants and pro bono attorneys, too
After seven years of providing free legal forms and explanatory booklets, we at Southeast Tennessee Legal Services find that many of the same documents can be used for three different but related purposes. There is overlap between self-representation, pro bono counseling, and even limited representation by an attorney for a fee.
Initially, we commenced a program designed to assist pro se litigants and, not incidentally, court clerks and judges. Unreliable documents, inadequately explained, often obtained from out-of-state providers, were said to beset Tennessee trial courts — especially in divorce cases. We provided advice in clinics to poor persons, using check-the-box forms and elementary written explanations for guidance when the counseling session was over. We continue to do so in a few counties, usually at libraries because space in courthouses is at a premium. We also give advice by telephone to pro se litigants anywhere in Tennessee, though no longer by a toll-free number because of a decline in funding.
For this clientele, simpler documents with fewer choices and instructions often meet the need. For the most part, these documents are not of economic concern to lawyers in private practice. Court clerks and trial judges frequently express gratitude for the availability of this kind of assistance to persons who might otherwise ask for it from the clerks and judges. No doubt the new uncontested divorce forms from the Access to Justice Commission, which are of this type, will greatly assist all participants in our judicial system.
Like court systems and legal service organizations in some other states, we also offer a range of documents in many fields of law via the Internet for other clienteles. Lately, files are being downloaded from our site at a rate in excess of 300,000 a year. (Downloading probably involves several files per person.) While we do not have the ability to track who downloads our documents, our belief is that they are different than the people we have served in clinics: somewhat better educated, more likely to be employed, experiencing more complicated problems, but still unable to afford lawyers on a full-fee basis. So they go to the Internet to see what they can find. What they locate are our no-cost forms and many others for which there is usually a fee, often hundreds of dollars.
There are two other uses for forms and booklets such as ours.
First, while there are many litigants who are persistent enough to represent themselves adequately, many others would be better advised to seek some assistance from a pro bono lawyer. They are more likely to make mistakes that can show up years later in parenting plans or deeds that have defects. Unfortunately, there seems to be a shortage of pro bono lawyers with the willingness and ability to practice in the fields where the greatest need exists — family law, landlord-tenant disputes, and consumer problems.
Voila! Following the lead of the University of Tennessee College of Law and the former Knoxville Legal Aid Society in their exceptionally helpful manuals created more than 25 years ago but not thereafter revised, our forms and booklets are meant to be used by pro bono lawyers as well as by lay people. A reasonably competent lawyer should be able to give suitable advice on a pro bono basis in a field outside his or her usual practice by using these documents along with other materials already in a standard law library.
Finally, we are sensitive to the concern of private practitioners that persons capable of paying reasonable fees may be using the kinds of documents we provide. In recent years we have heard less of that concern, but it remains a valid one. Our recommendation is that more lawyers offer limited representation, as does one of us on a regular basis. That means some combination of advice, preparation of documents, and court appearances, but not all three for the fee in a particular case. The work of the lawyer and counselor can begin after the client does the homework that instructional booklets and forms can provide.
- The forms and explanatory booklets may be found at www.selegal.org.
- Funding has been provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Benwood Foundation.
- We offer 32 explanatory booklets and 247 forms in virtually all fields where a need is said to exist. See Documenting the Justice Gap in America, Legal Services Corporation: Sept. 2009. It measures the unserved population as having cases in the following fields of law: family, 47.4 percent; housing, 14.4 percent; consumer, 10.4 percent; and all other fields, 27.8 percent.
- The new website, www.onlinetnjustice.org, created by Tennessee’s Access to Justice Commission, seems especially suited to the obtainingof pro bono advice by Internet-savvy but needy persons.
WHITNEY DURAND is in private practice in Chattanooga, concentrating on litigation of business and property disputes as well as consumer and family law cases. He serves on a volunteer basis as executive director of Southeast Tennessee Legal Services. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
CATHY ALLSHOUSE is a staff attorney for Southeast Tennessee Legal Services and concentrates on family law and consumer cases. She was recently awarded the Albert Hodge Volunteer Award from the Chattanooga Bar Association. She is a graduate of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.