Judges and justices say courts struggle to be efficient or effective when people "go it alone" without an attorney or legal advocate.
As the following quotes illustrate, ensuring civil legal representation is not about taking sides in any particular case, but about making sure the system is working correctly — so everyone is treated equally, and so we avoid government inefficiency.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court
Former member, WisTAF Board of Directors
Lack of civil legal representation impacts the quality of judicial decisions, the confidence of litigants in the legal process, and the efficiency of the courts. As a Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge who recently presided over a full-time family law caseload for three years, I witnessed this on a daily basis while in the trenches with litigants in cases dealing with the issue that arguably matters most to individuals and community: their children.
First, litigants without representation struggled, and often failed, to present important, relevant information to the court. Information is critical to high-quality well-reasoned judicial decisions under the rule of law. Second, litigants without representation often voiced frustration with the legal process, a frustration rooted in the absence of an attorney to explain the process to them and prepare them for it. This frustration can lead to a lack of confidence in the legal process and the resulting judicial decisions, increasing the likelihood of post-judgment litigation such as motions to modify legal custody and physical placement of children. Additionally, this frustration can cause parents to withdraw from participating in the legal process, leaving the court with even less information upon which to make decisions. Finally, cases involving unrepresented litigants usually required more judicial time than cases where both litigants were represented. Given the high percentage of family law cases where at least one litigant does not have legal representation, the additional judicial time required for these cases significantly affects the efficiency of the courts in individual cases and systemically, resulting in longer wait times for court hearings and for reaching final resolutions.
Judges bear great responsibility for making good decisions under the rule of law, inspiring public confidence in the legal process and managing the courts efficiently. However, judges will never fill the void left by a lack of civil legal representation.
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District 3
Member, Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission
Former member, WisTAF Board of Directors
The importance of suitable civil legal representation in Wisconsin cannot be understated. Indeed, it improves our civil justice system in a number of important ways. These include, among many others, providing all litigants with the impression that they were given a “fair shot” and were properly heard on the merits, enabling judges to correctly and efficiently resolve the cases before them.
Unlike circuit court judges—who have the unenviable task of working with pro se litigants in numerous contexts while cases are actually developing—we intermediate appellate court judges have the vantage point of concluded trial court litigation. All too often, it is clear “from the record” that, despite the best efforts of the trial judge and even sometimes opposing counsel, the unrepresented civil litigant fails woefully to represent his or her best interests. Such an outcome is only natural for individuals who, whatever their background, are not armed with years of learning substantive law, much less know how to properly and effectively conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise prosecute a case. This deficiency is especially true with certain subject matters, such as family law—including child support and custody cases—employment disputes, and landlord-tenant cases.
To be sure, there is only so much we can do. But the more we remain cognizant of these important concerns, the better off our justice system will be.