A 17-month project designed to provide legal services to people embroiled in family disputes, including divorce cases, has found that as many as 12,000 such people in Maryland each year forego hiring a lawyer, often because they can't afford it.
The needs of these people can be met with a range of lower-cost alternatives to traditional lawyering, according to a study conducted by the University of Maryland Law School's assisted pro se project.
Among options suggested by the study are counseling sessions with law students trained in family law and increased use of mediation.
"We expected to find a lot of folks who needed help and aren't getting it. We found more than we expected," said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor and director of the school's clinical law program.
Millemann said the group members discovered that people's needs for legal assistance varied widely depending on the complexity of their cases. Those with simple divorce matters often were capable of handling their cases with little help.
But in cases involving child custody or child support, a lawyer's advice became critical, the study concludes.
"Our major recommendation is that there be a variety of forms of legal help and self-help," Millemann said.
"There are some cases people can handle themselves, and others in which they need partial legal assistance, but not the full-scale model we in the legal profession have developed over the past several centuries."
The family law project relied heavily on students, who provided information and advice to people needing legal help.
The students went through a family law training program. Then, about three dozen of the students, grouped in teams of two, staffed offices at court houses in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.
Under teacher and lawyer supervision, students gave several types of assistance. Anyone who requested it could get general legal information, but only indigent clients were offered free counsel.
One of the study's main recommendations is to urge that lawyers share workloads with their clients to hold down legal fees.
In such arrangements, known as "unbundling" or "discrete task" lawyering, a client goes to an attorney for advice on complex issues involved in a case, such as child custody or child support.
On other routine matters, however, the client doesn't use the lawyer -- or pay for the lawyer's services. By handling the tasks alone, the client pays for only the advice he or she needs.
That approach has been controversial for some attorneys, who are used to handling their clients' affairs from start to finish.
"There ought to be resources available to help people at critical points in the process -- for a reduced fee," Millemann said.
Millemann said he hoped the findings would prompt discussion in the legal community, perhaps changing the ways that low-income people can get help with family law problems.
"Clearly, there's a large, unmet need," the law professor said.
Pub Date: 7/06/96