Q: Does everyone in Ohio have access to our justice system?
A: While equal justice is a goal, it is frequently unrealized, especially for those without resources. As the “third branch of government,” the U.S. and Ohio constitutions charge the courts with protecting individual rights, insuring responsibilities and protecting the public’s safety. However, in Ohio, less than one-half of one per cent of the state’s budget goes to the courts. As courts become increasingly busy, this lack of resources hurts those least able to bear the burden.
Q: Can’t people defend themselves in court and avoid paying for expensive lawyers?
A: Yes. Some people do choose to defend themselves, sometimes because they prefer to speak for themselves and more often because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer. These individuals are referred to as either “pro se” (meaning “for self”) or “indigent” (meaning “without resources”). Those who are not represented by legal counsel are often hurt because they may not understand the complexity involved in court proceedings, and because they may not be able to be adequately persuasive in presenting the facts of the case. Some may further damage their own cases due to difficulty speaking English, or with emotional displays, or by trying to advance agendas that disrupt the court.
Q: I understand that, if I am accused of a crime and want an attorney, but cannot afford one, the court will appoint one for me at no cost. Isn’t that true?
A: Yes. The state provides public defenders, whose job it is to help ensure that indigent people are properly represented. The state also is responsible for charging and prosecuting criminal cases, and devotes significant resources to the attorney general and to prosecuting attorneys, whose job is to protect the public’s safety by convicting criminal offenders. The state devotes fewer resources to the public defenders who represent those accused of crimes; fewer resources generally translates to larger case loads and less time for adequate trial preparation.
Q: If I decide to defend myself in a criminal trial, isn’t it possible I could win?
A: Yes. You could win; certainly you are likely to understand the facts of your case. However, your own freedom may be at stake in a criminal trial. Defense lawyers serve a critical adversarial role in criminal courts. They are not there to change the facts of the case, but rather to insure that the judge or jury appreciate all the important facts of the case.
Q: Are there any disadvantages to defending myself in a civil case?
A: Yes. Civil cases evolve from disputes among people. In civil cases, attorneys are critical in discovering information and advocating contractual, damage or other claims to a judge or jury. Whether it should be or not, trial advocacy is very intense and can be very complex. Generally, an attorney who is licensed by the state to interpret the law and counsel clients is in a better position to argue for you.
Q: What resources are available to me now to ensure my equal access to justice?
A: Volunteer attorneys are available through your local bar association and legal aid society to consult with you about your legal problem. Since 2003, the Supreme Court of Ohio has provided more than $2.6 million to support volunteer programs and activities to the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation from licensing fees paid by Ohio attorneys. The Court has called on all Ohio attorneys to be “mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice … [since] sometimes persons cannot afford adequate legal assistance,” and has urged them to increase their volunteer service to those in need. For an attorney referral, go to http:www.sconet.state.oh.us/Lawyer_Referral/referral/LRIS.pdf or contact your local legal aid society.
Q: What are Ohio courts doing to address equal access to justice during the foreclosure crisis?
A: Recognizing that many Ohio citizens facing foreclosure need trustworthy advice and assistance, but cannot afford legal representation, Ohio attorneys are volunteering to represent those in need. In addition, foreclosure mediation programs throughout the state enable self-represented persons to meet with their lender and a court mediator in an attempt to re-negotiate terms and avoid foreclosure. More information is available at http://www.com.ohio.gov/SavetheDream/.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by the late Judge John Adkins of Circleville, and updated by Judge Deborah J. Nicastro of the Garfield Heights Municipal Court.