Is the expense of a lawyer necessary?

REMEMBER the old comedy routine where a fellow who owes a $2 traffic fine is taken in tow by his lawyer and persuaded to appeal it? Successive confrontations in court increase the penalty. But the attorney, intent on justice, pursues the case without any regard to his client's plea: ''Pay the man the two dollars!!''

Inflation has retired this yarn to the old jokes' home. But the lesson remains. Sometimes it is cheaper and more efficient to resolve disputes without a lawyer. Fees for a simple litigation often exceed $100 an hour. The time a client spends in supplying his lawyer with the information needed to prepare the case might be put to better use. And court delays and red tape must be weighed against potential gains.

Does all this mean that we should forget attorneys, that we would be better off going to court alone?

Not always, but in some cases yes - particularly those cases over small claims and those in which the alternative is no resolution at all, because the person involved can't afford a lawyer.

While no one suggests lawyers aren't necessary, calls for reform have been heard at several levels.

Voices of concern range from the ranks of the prominent - Chief Justice Warren Burger and Harvard president Derek Bok, for example - to the grass-roots level, where such Washington, D.C.-based lobbies as Help Abolish Legal Tyranny (HALT) and the Public Citizen Litigation Group (PCLG) are active. Aims and constituencies differ somewhat, but there is agreement on two points: Lawyers, together with excess litigation, need to be reined in, and the high costs of resolving disputes need to be curbed.

With these goals in mind, budget-minded corporations have already turned to minicourts, arbitration, mediation, and out-of-court means to resolve civil disagreements. But the hundreds of thousands of civil actions, brought by individuals who want to resolve consumer or neighborhood disputes, still find their way into the court - often small-claims court.

This is where most citizens come face to face with the legal system, says Richard Neely of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Referring to minor legal jurisdictions as the ''stepchildren courts'' in his recent book ''Why Courts Don't Work,'' he adds: ''. . . in a world characterized by the automobile , consumer debt, and rental housing, few people can avoid eventually going to traffic or small claims court.''

In this justice-for-the-little-guy setting, lawyers are usually optional. Some states, such as California, prohibit them. Disputes typically involve cash claims averaging about $1,500. Cases can include such issues as landlord-tenant disputes, complaints against dry cleaners and repairmen, and conflicts between neighbors over garbage cans or barking dogs.

Are citizens assured of just and fair decisions in small-claims court? And is it safe to appear before a judge without preparation?

HALT lawyer Katherine Lee answers no to both questions. Miss Lee's group prints a do-it-yourself citizens legal manual for those who contemplate going it alone in minor courts to help ensure a fairer hearing. Information includes:

* Advice on letter writing, which can sometimes avert court action.

* Discussion of alternatives to litigation, such intervention by a citizens group like the Better Business Bureau.

* Criteria on how to decide whether to hire a lawyer.

* And, most important, point-by-point suggestions on preparing a case, for those who go it alone.

The group's basic message: Be informed, know your options, and avoid legal pitfalls.

Other groups fight the battle on different fronts.

PCLG has defended the right of a former legal secretary in Florida, Rosemary Furman, to fill out divorce papers and change-of-name petitions and provide other services. Her clients come mainly from the ranks of the poor, the uneducated, and minorities and have little choice but to represent themselves in court. Miss Furman, who set up shop a decade ago, was prosecuted recently for exceeding the bounds of paralegal assistance and practicing law without a license. The larger issue, insists her attorney, PCLG's Alan Morrison, is the need to provide legal help to millions of people who can't pay the going rates.

American Bar Association officials warn that there are dangers when a person is represented by untrained or unlicensed counsel. For instance, there is no effective safegard against malpractice, they say.

On the other hand, Mr. Morrison and other lawyers active in legal-aid groups insist that access to the US legal system is the paramount issue. They point out that at present, legal services are limited mainly to the ''haves.'' At the very least, they argue, somebody has to teach the ''have-nots'' how to fend for themselves.

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