Court data from April 1, 2015, to March 31, 2016-the study of more than 50,000 civil cases handled by the General District Courts (the lower of Virginia’s two trial courts which have exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving amounts of up to $4,500 and shared jurisdiction with the Circuit Courts of cases up to $25,000 in controversy), revealed that in only 1% of the cases were both parties represented by legal counsel. In the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts, almost 90% of the approximately 75,000 custody, support, and other contested adult civil cases are disputed by parties where neither side is represented by a lawyer. The data and analysis were prepared by the National Center for State Courts as part of its five-year Virginia Self-Represented Litigant Study. The Center delivered its report last month to the office of the executive secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court (VSC). Frank Green, the article’s writer, labeled the Virginia study as the second such effort in the country behind only a similar study in Missouri.
While those attorneys who regularly practice in the Commonwealth’s district courts know that a large number of litigants in those courts for various reasons choose not to be represented by a lawyer in these case, that knowledge was anecdotal. “No one had any idea what the numbers really were until the study was concluded and the report was released.” John E. Whitfield, director of Blue Ridge Legal Services was quoted as saying. He went on to say that “when one side has an attorney and the other side doesn’t, then he system becomes dysfunctional; it’s a tilted playing field.” While the judges make their best efforts to be fair to the unrepresented, they cannot ignore their obligation to remain neutral and recognize their duty to conduct the proceedings fairly for both sides.
Whitfield went on to say in the article that “our court system was designed with the implicit premise that litigants were going to have lawyers on both sides. That is the way the court system is set up: the rules of evidence, the rules of procedure, how you make objections, how you get evidence in, how you draft pleadings – every aspect of litigation in our court system presumes the presence of counsel on both sides.” People often think that there is a right to have an attorney in any court matter. However, that right has been limited to criminal matters where the defendant faces a possibility of jail or imprisonment. There is no comparable right to counsel in civil cases.
Moreover, legal representation or the lack thereof is not proportional among the litigants in district court. In those cases, plaintiffs (the party who initiates the litigation by filing suit) are represented in more than half the cases, while defendants (the party who is being sued) are represented in very few. Studies have shown that the outcome of cases is heavily impacted by whether or not one party is represented. The data from the general district courts show that plaintiffs with lawyers won 60% of cases where the defendant was not represented. However, the plaintiffs’ success rate dropped to only 20% where both parties were represented by counsel. The study’s data shows that both plaintiffs and defendants have substantially higher success rates when they are represented by a lawyer.
Similarly, in eviction cases, in the year which ended on March 31, 2016, tenants lost eviction cases brought by their landlords 62% of the time where they were unrepresented but lost only 34% of the cases where they had legal representation.
Many people who become involved in the court system never seek to hire a lawyer because they are convinced that they could not afford to do so. Cost is certainly a major factor in any professional hire, but there may be alternatives which could reduce the cost of hiring an attorney. If you believe you have a legitimate case to recover an item of value or monetary benefits or damages, there are many lawyers who would consider representing you on a contingent fee basis, where the lawyer is entitled to a fee only if the lawyer is able to bring about a recovery in your favor, the lawyer’s fee being a percentage of the recovery. Similarly, certain statutory causes of action, such as consumer cases and employment discrimination cases, provide a statutory basis for the successful plaintiff to be awarded his/her costs of bringing suit, including a reasonable attorneys’ fee. The right to be reimbursed your legal expenses may also be created by certain language in private contracts between individuals and companies. Finally, if there is no other fee shifting language or insufficient likelihood of receiving a monetary award, there are legal aid clinics that are willing to represent certain categories of litigants at no charge. Legal Aid may also know of individual attorneys who agree to represent clients at no fee as part of that attorney’s obligation to provide certain services
(for the public good). Keep in mind that all legal aid clinics are stretched to the maximum of their existing resources and may not be able to represent you.
If you, or anyone you know, has been injured as a result of a work-related accident, please contact a
, preferably one who practices in the field of workers’ compensation. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out how these attorneys charge their fees and how you can be represented by competent counsel in your workers’ comp case. We would, of course, appreciate your calling us at HammondTownsend if you do not have a lawyer to represent you for your workers’ compensation claims. We will be happy to explain how we charge our clients for our services. You may find that hiring a lawyer is easier than you thought, and, as the statistics show, your chances for success will go up immediately.