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More forgo lawyer in domestic cases in Westmoreland County

| Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dozens of fractured families gathered in a small sitting area on Wednesday in the Westmoreland County Courthouse as they waited to take their divorce and child custody cases before a hearing officer.

There were no lawyers in sight.

For more than a year, a growing number of mothers and fathers, husbands and wives have been serving as their own attorneys in domestic court cases.

"I considered hiring a lawyer but changed my mind because of the cost," said Nattalie Turner of Jeannette as she awaited a custody hearing in the courthouse in Greensburg.

"You can do everything yourself. I found out everything I need on the Internet. It was very easy," Turner said.

There were more than 2,500 domestic cases, including custody complaints and divorces, filed last year in Westmoreland County. Almost 25,000 similar cases were filed last year in Allegheny County.

"A large percent of those cases are filed (without lawyers)," said Patrick Quinn, a family court administrator in Allegheny County. "I'm sure if people don't have money, they can't afford to pay for a lawyer. It's expensive to retain counsel."

Westmoreland County Prothonotary Christina O'Brien said twice as many new domestic cases being filed are coming from people without lawyers when compared with cases submitted by attorneys on behalf of clients.

"It's not that complicated, really. They get the forms and fill them out," O'Brien said.

Bruce Tobin, a custody hearing officer in Westmoreland County, said 46 percent of his cases involve parents who are not represented by attorneys. Through April, Tobin conducted 242 hearings. In 112 of those cases, at least one litigant was not represented by an attorney.

Two years ago, only about 30 percent of cases had litigants without lawyers, Tobin said.

The increase has led Westmoreland court administrators to schedule hearing days specifically for people who do not have lawyers. Mary Jo Domenick, a domestic court administrator, said two days a month are set aside to accommodate the large number of people working without attorneys.

"It's almost like a cattle call. It turns into a kind of zoo on those days," Domenick said.

Pennsylvania counties are not required to report the number of domestic cases filed pro se, or without lawyers. But local court administrators said they have seen dramatic increases.

"People are absolutely pursuing custody and child support cases on their own. It's a significant increase," Quinn said.

Court administrators in Washington County said they have noted increases, while Fayette County court officials said they've noticed no changes in recent years.

"We've always had a lot of that," said Fayette Deputy Prothonotary Rose Kern.

Greg Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, said the number of litigants without lawyers in domestic cases is on the rise nationally. Few states track such filings, but recent studies found that the number of cases filed without lawyers doubled in California between 2002 and 2007. In Connecticut, the number of those cases increased nearly 19 percent since 2005.

"It's an economic issue. The cost of litigation is pretty significant," Hurley said. He cited the availability of legal forms on the Internet.

Forms to file court documents, including domestic cases, can be printed from Westmoreland County's website. The prothonotary's office hands out fliers for a Pittsburgh printing company that sells documents to file in divorce cases. The court administrator's office hands out information packets to people who don't want to or cannot afford to hire a lawyer in custody cases.

The county so far this year has given out nearly 500 information packets to people who want to represent themselves.

O'Brien said it costs $141 to file a divorce case in Westmoreland County.

Lawyer fees for divorces and custody cases could range from $500 to $5,000, according to Michael Stewart, president of the Westmoreland County Bar Association.

"There's an abundance of information available, but how you apply it is another matter," Stewart said.

The Bar Association operates a program for low-income residents who cannot afford lawyers for domestic and civil court cases. Last year, it assisted about 500 people free of charge, Stewart said.

Many others choose to represent themselves, which can cause delays, according to Tobin.

"They don't understand the process of filing, and it slows things down," he said.

Personal budget issues prompted Rae Ann Baradziej of Jeannette to file her own child custody case.

"It's really expensive to hire a lawyer, so I decided I would try to make it through by myself. It's not that hard," Baradziej said.

Allegheny County offers an assistance program for low-income residents. Attorneys, law students and other volunteers help litigants who decide to go solo to prepare court motions and petitions each Tuesday and Thursday morning at the family court division on Ross Street.

Quinn said that program has grown exponentially over the years, and it limits participants to 50 a week. As a result, Allegheny County is looking for other avenues to assist people who want to go through domestic cases without legal representation.

"One impediment is money. We're certainly aware of the budget, and we're trying to figure out ways to provide assistance in these budget-limited times," Quinn said.

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