Fayette County courts see increase in people representing themselves, clerk says

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Fayette Circuit Court is among those that have seen a statewide increase in the number of people representing themselves.

The trend was cited recently by Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. in his state of the judiciary address to state lawmakers. Kentucky doesn't track self-represented litigant cases, but Minton said there had been "a surge in people who are foregoing attorneys and choosing to represent themselves."

Fayette Circuit Clerk Vincent Riggs said he knew anecdotally that more people are asking court clerks for help because they don't have attorneys.

"I've had those cases come up more so now than ever," Riggs said.

Minton and Riggs said they are seeing the increase in family court. In his speech, Minton said he thought the cost of "legal representation is one of the factors driving this trend."

Fewer people are able to afford an attorney, and there has been an increase in "litigants who decide to represent themselves using forms and legal advice from the Internet," Minton said in his speech.

Riggs said people need to be careful using self-help forms because judges might not be able to accept them. Minton said court proceedings are taking more time because self-represented people are often unfamiliar with court procedures and require help.

That becomes an issue because "the margin for error is higher, which can affect the course and outcome of a case," said Minton.

Still, the margin for error apparently has not discouraged people from trying their own cases.

Further complicating the matter is a loss of funding for civil legal-aid programs.

Since 2007, funding for legal aid through all revenue sources — including federal funds, state appropriations, filing fees and grants — has decreased by more than $3 million, which amounts to one-quarter of the statewide legal-aid budget.

During that same period, the number of low-income Kentuckians increased by 27 percent. The state's four civil legal-aid programs have lost 16 attorneys and closed five offices, the chief justice said.

Fifty-five percent of eligible applicants were denied legal services because of a lack of resources, Minton said, but legal aid managed to help 68,000 people last year.

Boone County Circuit Clerk Dianne Murray, who is president of the Kentucky Association of Circuit Court Clerks, said in a news release that clerks statewide were "striving to improve the way circuit clerks work with people who are representing themselves in cases rather than using an attorney. Many people don't have access to an attorney or choose to represent themselves. Circuit clerks can't provide legal advice, but it is our job to do whatever we can to ensure everyone has access to the courts."

Riggs said a training session for clerks in Lexington recently addressed people who represent themselves. Given that clerks are limited in what they may tell someone, efforts are being directed at answering the question, "How do we help our citizens without crossing that line?"

The Kentucky Access to Justice Commission, created by the Supreme Court in 2010, is trying to improve civil legal aid to low-income citizens by providing information on legal resources through public libraries and circuit court clerks' offices statewide, Minton said.