High Cost of Justice Sidelines the Needy
By Kara J. Shire; CONTRA COSTA TIMES
May 9, 2004
Hiring an attorney is a notoriously pricey prospect. And as legal fees rise -- $300 an hour
for a divorce lawyer is not out of the question -- the number of people forced to navigate
the justice system on their own has also climbed, legal experts said.
The problem is vast, but it is hardly new.
Poor people in need of legal help have never had an easy time paying for it. But attorney
fees have risen to such a point that even some lawyers privately say that, should they
need it, they too would be priced out of the legal market.
"This isn't just a poor person's issue," said M. Sue Talia, a Danville-based certified family
law specialist, private judge and author of the book, "A Client's Guide to Limited Legal
Services." "There are a lot of middle income people who have assets they need to protect
but can't afford an attorney."
Attorney fees are going up primarily because the cost of running a law firm has risen,
attorneys said. Malpractice insurance has gone through the roof, and employee costs,
including workers' compensation, also have risen.
To deal with the problem, California attorneys and courts have created a handful of
services and programs to help people get more affordable legal counsel or better
represent themselves in court.
Contra Costa County is considered a nationwide leader in its use of "unbundled services,"
a controversial way to lower legal costs by allowing clients to hire attorneys to handle
only certain aspects of a case -- to deal only with the custodial side of a divorce, for
Attorneys and courts in Contra Costa and Alameda counties also offer free legal clinics,
self-help services and a program to help those who fall just above the federal poverty
guidelines, and therefore are ineligible for pro bono service. A group of Contra Costa
attorneys also is working to create a nonprofit to increase pro bono help for the working
Despite these efforts, the need for legal help is tremendous.
Ramon Arias, executive director of Richmond-based Bay Area Legal Aid, said in Contra
Costa County in particular, where per-capita pro bono funding is the second-lowest in the
Bay Area, attorneys must give more.
"The great thing about Contra Costa County is there are people trying to do some things
to fix this," Arias said. "But I believe that private attorneys in the county are not doing
enough to support legal assistance to the poor. No matter how you measure, attorneys in
that county contribute less to support legal assistance than attorneys in (almost) any other
county in the Bay Area."
Palmer Madden, an Alamo-based mediator and past president of the State Bar of
California, said the legal community is scrambling for solutions. "What there is, is a
crying need that we are struggling to figure out how to address," Madden said. "Attorney
time is so expensive that for most people it's just not a realistic alternative. The courts,
while they make every effort to be user-friendly, are surrounded by a matrix of laws, and
you don't just get the open sesame by walking into court."
Family law courts are the hardest hit. It is estimated that, statewide, more than 80 percent
of family law cases that go to court do so with one side self-represented; more than half
go to court without professional legal representation on either side.
Self-represented litigants pose several problems, both for themselves and for the court
system, legal experts said.
First, and some say most importantly, their lack of knowledge means they are more easily
denied justice, simply because they don't know how to pursue it.
"Walk into a courthouse and see what happens to people who are representing themselves
when they are up against a lawyer on the other side," said Ramon Arias, executive
director of Bay Area Legal Aid, a Richmond-based non-profit that provides pro bono
counsel to the poor.
"The legal system is so complex people cannot adequately represent themselves,
regardless of any (assistance) that's been offered."
Self-represented litigants also tend to take more time in court, slowing the process and
costing taxpayers, attorneys and their clients time and money, lawyers said.
"You have people who are just regular people who are sitting up there confused, scared,
and they're dealing with the most intimate things in their lives," Madden said.
"In many instances, the only financial assets they have they're counting on for their
retirement. You put on top of that people who don't have counsel, and you have a pretty
The access to justice problem, as it's known, has been widely discussed, analyzed and
reported in the legal community.
In a 2002 report, "The Path to Equal Justice," the California Commission on Access to
Justice said nearly 75 percent of the legal needs of the state's poor and low-income
residents were not being addressed.
This, despite reports completed a decade earlier that found poor people face an average of
one legal problem per household per year -- from battered women in need of legal help to
separate from their abusive partners, to veterans who need a lawyer to help them gain
access to mandated resources.
But poor people are not the only ones affected.
Studies have shown that low- to moderate-income households -- those earning between
$27,000 and $45,000 -- also average one new or ongoing legal need per year, but fewer
than 40 percent of these families are able to pursue legal action, according "The Path to
Equal Justice" report.
Statistics like these helped spur the recent spate of court- and attorney-based programs
that aim to help people through the legal system. Attorneys now volunteer to give free
law clinics; others offer volunteer legal aid during complicated guardianship hearings.
Mary Viviano, director of legal services outreach for the State Bar of California, said the
legal community is paying attention to the problem, and it's showing.
"In many ways we have come a long way in California," Viviano said. "We're in a
Kara J. Shire covers small business and professional services. Reach her at 925-943-8263
The following organizations have more information about legal aid, self-representation
and the courts.
Judicial Council of California: www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/
Bay Area Legal Aid: www.baylegal.org/
Alameda County Bar Association: www.acbanet.org/
Contra Costa County Bar Association: www.cccba.org/comm/
Alameda County Superior Court: www.co.alameda.ca.us/courts/
Contra Costa County Superior Court Virtual Self-Help Law Center: www.cc-
American Bar Association: www.abanet.org/legalservices/findlegalhelp/
California Superior Court EZ Legal File: www.ezlegalfile.com/index.jsp
Nolo: self-help legal publications, www.nolopress.com