When You Represent Yourself In Court: Help for Pro Se Clients

By Laura Melton Tucker, December 19th, 2014

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Over the last several years I have noticed that more clients attending mediation are pro se litigants, or, in layperson terms, representing themselves in their divorces.   6th Judicial District Judge Fae Hoover-Grinde recently spoke about the special concerns of pro se litigants at an informational meeting sponsored by Mediation Services of Eastern Iowa (MSEI).  When Judge Hoover-Grinde is wearing her judicial robe, she explained to the gathered attorneys and mediators, she cannot give legal advice to people appearing in her court.  She can, however, provide pro se parties with information about what the law requires, answer procedural questions, point the way to proper forms, and speak transparently about how the process works.

The financial benefits of self-representation are an incentive in today’s stressed economy.  Hiring a divorce attorney can be expensive, but not as expensive, attorneys point out, as the mistakes clients may make by not hiring one.  And yet, for parties who feel like they want to or must navigate the divorce process on their own, the court system can make them feel, in the words of Judge Hoover-Grinde, “like strangers in a strange land.”  Hoover-Grinde holds a monthly Pro Se Order Hour to answer questions, review forms, and explain the process to people who choose to represent themselves.  The internet has made information, including government forms, tax rules and divorce codes, accessible to divorcing litigants, but, as the saying goes, getting information online can be like drinking water from a fire hydrant.  The flow of information, strong and plentiful, can also be overwhelming.

A new trend in family law of “unbundling” legal services is offering pro se litigants a cost effective alternative.  Unbundling, sometimes called limited representation, allows attorneys to piece out their work.  Limited services might include specific tasks like handling the temporary matters process only, or assisting in the child support calculation, or, once divorce paperwork is complete, reviewing it for errors or potential problems. According to Jim Kringlen, attorney and legal aid representative, limited scope services create a bridge for clients who want help but feel they can’t afford to pay an attorney for the entire divorce process.  Limited scope attorneys will ask clients to sign an informed consent that spells out clearly the obligations and limitations of the attorney’s limited services.

Marlene Perrin, a local tax preparer, also spoke to the group about the intricacies of tax rules that impact divorcing couples. She described how in the old days, child tax credits went to which ever divorcing parent got to the tax office first.  In 2009, the IRS unburdened themselves from settling disputes between divorcing parents who both claimed tax credits only available to one parent by defining very specifically who qualifies for tax credit benefits. Depending on a parent’s income level and how much time the parent lives with a child, a divorcing parent may qualify for tax credits as the custodial parent and/or head of household.  Other credits for parents may also be at stake. Because deciphering tax rules can be daunting for pro se litigants, Perrin recommends consulting with a tax accountant for advice before finalizing a divorce agreement.

Self-determination is the hallmark of mediation, but bad decision-making can be worse than no decision-making.  The takeaway for all divorcing clients, whether attorney or self represented, is that accurate information can save both money and stress. For clients navigating the process on their own, limited scope legal services coupled with tax advice from an expert can make the process less intimidating and potentially less fraught with risk.  The availability of online information coupled with unbundled legal and tax advice, means that now, more than ever, pro se litigants have multiple options for help and support.

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