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How Americans Navigate a Civil Justice System Made 'By Lawyers, For Lawyers'

Monday, March 18, 2019

How Americans Navigate a Civil Justice System Made 'By Lawyers, For Lawyers'

"“It’s not looking good,” Special Judge Geary Walke said as he listed the defendants from the day’s docket of assets cases. Most of the defendants were nowhere to be seen in the sixth floor courtroom of Oklahoma County’s District Court that morning, so their cases ended in default judgments. That means the court automatically ruled in favor of the party that showed up.

On that typical March morning, the docket revolved around evictions, debt and other cases involving assets. One of the defendants who did come to court didn’t bring bank records, despite a court order to do so.

The defendant, who declined an interview with Big If True, said in court that she didn’t bring the records because her account was closed. Walke explained that banks keep records for closed accounts, so she would still be able to get them. Furthermore, she was required to bring them because of the court order.

A possible punishment for not bringing the records, Walke claimed, was to be placed in jail indefinitely.

“You didn’t (bring the records), and this has already been continued once, so now you’re either in contempt of court, for which I can place you in jail – up to 180 days in county jail – or depending on whether it’s direct contempt, … that’s fine, too, but then I can hold you forever,” Walke said, “until you decide that you want out of jail by following the orders of the court.”

According to Oklahoma code, the maximum punishment for direct and indirect contempt includes a fine of up to $500 or up to six months in county jail – not “forever.” But the defendant in the case didn’t have an attorney, who could have pointed that out.

The defendant agreed to return that afternoon with the documents.

Across the country, a huge influx of individuals are representing themselves in civil courtrooms, which lack the criminal side’s right to counsel. Rather than pay exorbitant legal fees, litigants go it alone in civil cases that touch on intimate aspects of their lives, from divorces and child custody to financial matters that stem from poverty like eviction and debt.

Attorneys attend law school and then dedicate years to practicing their craft, while novices face a steep learning curve to reach justice in civil courts.

Del City, Oklahoma resident Alfreda Benford, who works in sales for a medical transport company, was shocked earlier this month when she received a summons from T&J Property Management claiming that she hadn’t paid her rent. Benford discovered the company had applied her check to another property where she’d lived a year and a half ago.

When she couldn’t get answers on the status of the case, she showed up in court even though her name wasn’t on the docket. That was when she found out the case had been dismissed.

“There’s no real direction to tell where you need to go or what happens if there’s a dispute, because this was a clear dispute,” Benford said. “I didn’t have any recourse of where to go or what to do, but to show up, so it’s time wasted, time off work.”

Data for courts can be hard to come by, but a study from the National Center for State Courts examined a sample of cases from 2012 to 2013 and found that at least one party – usually the defendant – didn’t have a lawyer in 76 percent of civil cases in state courts. That figure excludes family law cases that attorneys have said are also dominated by self-represented litigants.

Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, said his organization estimates that about 58.5 million people are financially eligible for services at legal aid programs that his organization funds. He described the large number of self-represented litigants as a problem that is largely hidden from the public..."

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