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Pro Se, Can You Sue?

How to recognize when you can take legal affairs into your own hands|when you should call an attorney

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"A man who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client." Does that old cliche always hold true?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no, legal experts say. The advent of available legal resources on the Internet has made law research much more convenient for the public, and subsequently has helped more and more lay people become "pro se" litigants, or those who act as their own lawyer.

The trick to representing oneself in court, though, is to recognize one's limitations -- and to be fully aware of the worst possible outcome of a case. In some instances, trying to save money on an attorney could end up costing a litigant dearly in penalties.

"It depends on the complexity of the case," says Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino. "The most common [type of lawsuit] is divorce, far and away. Can you handle your own divorce? It depends. Is there property that needs to be dealt with, are there custody issues, child support issues, alimony issues? If there are none of those -- two people without kids and little property to squabble over -- those types of divorces could be handled pretty readily without a lawyer."

Even so, local experts say that because there are no family courts in Orleans or Jefferson Parish, handling one's own divorce could be tricky. "The system is not really set up to accommodate pro se litigants," says Mark Moreau of New Orleans Legal Assistance, which provides aid in civil cases to lower-income clients.

Another area where people tend to represent themselves is in landlord/tenant disputes; again, Moreau advises caution in these cases. "I certainly wouldn't recommend [acting as your own lawyer] if the case involves subsidized housing or a written lease. Tenants who are getting evicted -- if they want to stay in the apartment and they think they have the right -- should get an attorney," he says. "And obviously if you have a commercial lease, it's very important to get a lawyer."

In such cases, general law practitioners are a good resource, and Moreau's organization does provide help to people who receive subsidized housing. He acknowledges that attorneys' fees are often beyond the reach of those who make too much money to qualify for free or low-cost legal assistance, and many middle-income people believe they have no choice but to represent themselves.

The Web site his organization maintains, www.LawHelp.org/LA, offers legal information that can help people prepare their own cases. There's also a directory of legal-aid groups who assist people in diverse income brackets. Moreau advises people to call around and ask, even if they think their incomes are too high to qualify.

"Sometimes within a legal aid program, different income guidelines depend on the type of problem," he says. "If it's a tax law case, our office can take a person up to 250 percent of the poverty level Š and for example, we have a predatory lending project for senior citizens with no income guideline. You just have to be over 60."

In some instances, hiring an attorney is essential. Anytime you have been sued, Moreau says, you should hire an attorney. Other cases that require an attorney include bankruptcies and personal-injury cases.

Some cases require getting a lawyer because of the complexities involved. "There are areas that are very complicated, like bankruptcy, tax or secession law dealing with state or federal law on entitlements," Moreau says. "Social Security applications are denied (in Louisiana) much more than they are in other states, and having an attorney represent you would increase your chances of winning those cases."

Ciolino says tax cases are often too complex even for attorneys who don't specialize in tax law. "If I had a problem, I'd go to a tax lawyer," he says. "And I think it's difficult for an ordinary person to effectively handle Social Security. Social Security denies a vast number of claims, but if they're fought properly by lawyers who know what they're doing, you can get those decisions reversed."

Sometimes, Moreau says, a person can hire an attorney on a limited basis, more as a consultant. He recommends the New Orleans-based Lawyer Referral and Information Service, a toll-free number (888-503-5747) in which "for 25 bucks, you can get a half-hour interview with an attorney in a relative specialty," he says.

"You have no obligation to hire that lawyer after that conference, but you at least have some professional assessment whether you have a legal problem and what your possible options are and what type of lawyer you need -- whether it's something you can handle on your own, or whether you can get limited assistance from an attorney." Such help might include hiring a lawyer just to review a settlement agreement or a contract. Moreau's organization is planning to put much more information on the LawHelp web site. "Our goal is to educate the public," he says, "and we're appropriate to help the public to draft pleadings within a pro se person's capabilities."

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