11 Apr /13

Who needs lawyers anyway?

Every once in a while, this question seems to be raised. Sometimes in jest, sometimes not.
As the dust settles on changes to the British legal aid system, it is a matter for legitimate discussion in the UK. New measures have drastically reduced the financial support available to those seeking a divorce, or for those involved in immigration or welfare disputes. It’s widely believed that this will lead to an increase in “pro se” representation, with people acting as their own advocates. Indeed, the Bar Council of England and Wales has published a detailed guide for anyone considering this route and doing without lawyers.

Can untrained, unqualified individuals really represent themselves adequately in a highly-charged courtroom setting? As well as technical knowledge and experience, a skilled advocate can be relied upon to bring a calm, dispassionate approach to a case. Would a person arguing in their own divorce or custody dispute be equally objective?
Advisory groups have been quick to point out that where claimants can no longer afford courtroom representation, they might find a less expensive alternative by holding an initial meeting with a lawyer, acting on their advice and coming back to them as things progress.  A brief, cost effective meeting along these lines could clarify the strength of an individual’s case and stop many disputes ever coming to court.

If we are looking for examples of a pro se system at work, the “DIY divorce” is not uncommon in the United States. A 2010 study of divorcing couples in the American Mid-West found that two out of five men and women chose to represent themselves, and the decision to dispense with lawyers was not always linked to the ability to afford it. Litigants who were childless, had no complex property issues to resolve and considered their cases “simple” were understandably more inclined to represent themselves.
But what is a “simple” case? And what is a successful outcome? In 2012 Craig Dershowitz, a New York art gallery employee, spent every penny of his $60,000 life savings in an attempt to gain custody of Knuckles, his pet dog. We can never be sure what people will care about the most, and we should never assume that others’ concepts of victory are the same as our own. What we can be sure of is that the advice of a skilled legal specialist will add objectivity and value.

The legal profession is not always portrayed flatteringly in the media. When Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park was released, it was noted with amusement that the biggest audience cheers came in response to a corporate attorney being eaten by a T-Rex. The presentation of the character was not entirely balanced; our hero’s last decisive act was to abandon the young children in his care and run and hide from danger. But there was widespread glee at the gruesome death of a “bloodsucking lawyer” (this is the screenwriter’s description, not ours).
This seemed to catch a mood, with many people questioning the motives and even the necessity of lawyers. The profession would prefer to identify with the slogan of the 1996 American Bar Association’s national convention:
“Freedom, Justice, Liberty — without lawyers they’re just words.”

At EVS Translations our experience of legal professionals on both sides of the Atlantic is far closer to the ABA’s image than Steven Spielberg’s. Legal aid cutbacks will no doubt restrict many peoples’ access to representation, but some form of professional advice will surely always be preferable.
In the same way that Google can partially replace a professional translation service, self-representation can partially replace skilled professional advocacy. But in both cases, crucial nuance will inevitably be lost. To communicate an important message in sense and spirit, we believe in working with professionals. If you need a translation, get a translator. And if you’re going to court, get some lawyers.