"They have chosen to represent themselves, partly because they
watch too much television and see that nobody has a lawyer on
. They feel they can tell their own story better
than any advocate could. But this is not television. People need
to understand this - in the same way that you wouldn't try to
fix your own car or you wouldn't try to fill a cavity in your
Judge Brownstone said that many unrepresented
litigants run aground because they are unfamiliar with court
procedures and fail to produce proper documentary evidence.
Others cannot detach themselves from their emotions.
"We have people who come in here and fill out their form on
an application for custody, saying the grounds for seeking
custody are: 'She's a bitch,' or, 'He's a Nazi,' " he said. "No
lawyer would let someone present that kind of thing."
Curiously, the judge said, many people are caught up in both
a family dispute and a criminal case - usually involving
allegations of domestic assault - yet, they retain a lawyer only
for the criminal case. "When they are worried about going to
jail and losing their liberty, they get lawyers," he said.
"But their family issue is going to go on much longer, and is
much more significant in the long run to their family life," he
In the case of an estranged couple admonished by Judge
Brownstone last week, each party had arrived with a laundry list
of issues, ranging from support payments and visitation rights
to special child-care expenses. They had not given each other
proper notice of what they would be applying for in court, and
they lacked documentary evidence, so he sent them packing.
He noted in the interview that each ex-spouse had obtained
the help of duty counsel (a lawyer paid by Legal Aid to work at
the courts assisting unrepresented people) after arriving at the
courthouse. However, a duty counsel can do little once a case is
at the courtroom door, he said.
In many cases, unrepresented litigants seek a lawyer after
they start to comprehend the complexity of the court process or
they have made a strategic legal mistake, he said.
"By then, the litigation has often become very hostile and
adversarial," he said. "The parties have become polarized in
their views. I feel that if they had gotten a lawyer in the
beginning, things might have gotten off to a better start."
The biggest surprise of all may come at the end of the case,
Judge Brownstone said: "I think people need to understand that
when you lose, you pay the costs of the other side. And if the
other side did have a lawyer, you are going to pay their legal