More Americans want to be their own Perry Mason

On television, it looks simple enough: You go to court. You make your case, with feeling, before a sharp-tongued but well-meaning judge. After a few moments -and a commercial break - the judge renders a decision. It looks so easy, you wonder: Who needs a lawyer?

Increasingly, many others are wondering the same thing.

The history of self-representation in court does not begin with "Judge Judy" - or even Judge Wapner and "The People's Court." It is a constitutional right that goes back throughout American history.

But in the past few years, the nation has seen a surge in the number of cases handled pro se - that is, "on one's own behalf" -particularly relatively uncomplicated issues like small claims or divorce. As the trend gains momentum, it is in some ways fundamentally changing how people interact with the courts, making contact more direct -for better or worse.

In many jurisdictions, the number of pro se cases is getting so high, courts are developing special systems to deal with them, says Mary Ryan, a Boston lawyer and former president of the Boston bar. "A lot of these people know what they want to do, just not how to do it."

In a world where person-to-person customer service has become something to be cherished, law is moving in the opposite direction: People are looking to be left alone. Some are handling their own cases because hiring a lawyer is simply cost-prohibitive. Others go the pro se route because they believe hired representation is unnecessary.

No one questions that a change is occurring. In 1998, more than half the family law cases in California's courts featured at least one pro se litigant. Between 1991 and 1993, the number of self-represented litigants in federal appeals courts climbed 49 percent. Most tellingly, perhaps, a 1999 survey from the National Center for the State Courts found that 58 percent of Americans believed they could represent themselves in court if necessary.

All of that has left the real law professionals unsure what to think. "It may be a chance for people to resolve their problems in a more cost-effective manner," says Terry Brooks of the American Bar Association. "But there's always the fear that people could take on more than they can handle."

To be sure, the trend has spawned a big industry. Courts in different states are responding differently to the boom, but most are adopting a case-by-case approach.

One red flag went up in Pennsylvania, where the state bar contends that one self-help group, We the People, offers legal advice without a license.

Many lawyers, however, are embracing the do-it-yourself approach for relatively simple matters, either because the cases are so small they wouldn't handle them, or because it offers another recourse for the poor.

Helping people in those circumstances is the goal of firms like Legal Advice Line, which offers legal assistance over the phone and Internet for a price. "There are many matters that fly below the radar screen, where people want assistance. That's our market," says president Mark Cauchon.

Of course, there are times when calling a lawyer is probably a good idea - if you are wrongfully accused of murder, for example. But if the question is, say, whether your tenant owes you rent, finding representation might be a bit difficult.

For $34.95, Legal Advice Line matches a caller with an attorney in the caller's state. But the future, Mr. Cauchon says, is on the Internet, where his company recently employed a system to help customers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia fill out the legal forms they need. Taking 15 minutes to answer six pages of questions can yield a completed 22-page Maryland divorce form.

You may have never considered divorce. The crafting of your last will and testament may still be years off. But it may be some comfort to know that you can do either one in less than a half-hour, a feat easily accomplished with all the right documents assembled. The costs, again, are small: $52.50 for a divorce in Maryland, $30.45 for a will.

Legal Advice Line will likely face more competition soon, as self-representation cases bog down courts in some states and municipalities. A recent paper from the Conference of State Court Administrators acknowledges the problem and proposes changes like self-help centers in the courts or communities. The paper also suggests "technology-based assistance."

In fact, several jurisdictions have already jumped into technology with both feet. The Legal Aid Society of Orange Country in California has an Internet-based system that uses the question-and-answer format to fill out documents ranging from paternity petitions to domestic-violence complaints.

Utah's Online Court Assistance Program, which has been operating since last November, uses the same technique to fill out forms for divorce and landlord-tenant disputes. Kim Allard, who oversees the website, says it has been a big success with court clerks and judges, who have a hard time walking pro se litigants through the process of filling out the proper forms.

But the biggest testimony to the site's success and to the future of self-litigation may be its popularity with the public. Ms. Allard estimates that, by the end of the year, almost 8 percent of the state's annual 13,000 divorces will be filed through the site - a much higher number than anyone there expected. "The public just loves it," she says. "They think it means they don't have to get a lawyer."

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