How to be your own lawyer in Georgia (and when you shouldn’t)

In his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told lawmakers, judges and others assembled for the joint legislative session about challenges the state faces in providing access to justice for Georgians.  

The first is an “astounding” backlog of civil and criminal cases, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said will take some county and state courts years to catch up on.  The second is a statewide shortage of lawyers. 

Fulton County alone has 4,000 pending indicted felony cases, and 14,000 unindicted felony cases, Boggs said. 

Defendants awaiting trial sit in jail for months, or even years. In Dougherty County, more than 200 people who’ve been charged but not convicted have been in jail for more than two years. 

As for judicial access, of 159 counties in Georgia, 67 have 10 or fewer licensed practicing attorneys, and seven — all rural counties — have none at all.  

Boggs said the legal workforce shortage significantly impacts civil cases such as divorces, child custody and eviction proceedings. He also noted that there is no right to appointed counsel in civil cases.  “The basic right of access is denied to many during their most dire life challenges,” said Boggs.

One imperfect solution to this lack of legal representation is for people to represent themselves. 

It’s not a new practice — people have done it for decades, from contract disputes in small claims courts to major felonies in superior courts. In 2021, 1.1 million people led their own cases in criminal and civil courts in Georgia.  

But the outcomes aren’t always good. Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines said in 2017 that self-represented litigants often lack basic legal knowledge, are more likely to lose their cases, and tend to slow down court proceedings.

Since then, the Access to Justice Committee of the Judicial Council of Georgia has led a statewide effort to create more resources to help people of low and middle incomes to represent themselves better, and to make courts more user-friendly, including an expansion of online legal resources.

Georgians can now access free legal forms based on Georgia code, related how-to videos and detailed instructions for common legal matters in family law, probate law (such as wills, guardianship and estate settlement), landlord-tenant law, advance health directives and name changes.

Most county courts have some online forms, as well as physical law libraries with printed forms and legal research materials available to the public.

Over the past five years, more than a dozen libraries around the state have expanded to become legal self-help centers staffed by paralegals or other trained personnel who can walk people through the maze of forms and explain how to complete and file a legal document properly. Nancy Long is one such legal “navigator,” working at the Southwest Georgia Legal Self-Help Center in Dougherty County in Albany. Southwest Georgia has many counties considered to be legal deserts, including four with no active, licensed lawyers. 

Long, a paralegal, said many people come into the center “afraid and intimidated by the legal system, and we help them figure out the forms and the legal terms, explain what things mean, and guide them through the system.”

Recently the center helped a man who wanted to legally acknowledge his child so the child could inherit from him. The staff provided information about the legitimation process, and he successfully represented himself in court.

The Southwest Georgia center also has tech set up for people to attend court hearings remotely via Zoom, which enables many residents without internet to access the courts and legal counsel in other cities. 

A Word of Caution

When it becomes clear that someone can’t handle their case themselves, either because of literacy issues or the case is too complex, Long said the staff refers people to a list of attorneys in the area, some of whom are willing to represent clients for free or at a reduced cost. One such pro bono attorney is Vicky Kimbrell, who leads the family law unit for Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit serving low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside of metro Atlanta. Atlanta Legal Aid Society serves a similar clientele within the five-county metro Atlanta area. 

“Pro se” or self-representation is better suited to uncontested divorces, said Kimbrell. “It works best when you have some agreed-upon structure, and when you file the divorce, both parties can agree and sign acknowledgments. People can walk through that pretty simply.”

The website of the Judicial Council provides comprehensive legal packets for divorces with and without children, and includes eight videos that explain how to complete the complex child support calculator worksheets.

“In a disputed custody case, that’s not enough,” said Kimbrell, who also serves on the Judicial Council’s Access to Justice committee and has helped to develop self-help resources for family law cases, including uniform legal forms for divorce that are accepted in courts statewide.

“If you’ve got a couple of kids or a house, it gets really complicated. If your husband has a lawyer and you don’t, and you’re standing in court, and whether or not you get custody of your kids depends on how you can maneuver this court process, that’s a scary place to be,” she said, advising people to seek out pro bono or low bono counsel in those cases.

People who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking and who need a temporary protective order (TPO) should call one of the legal aid programs or the domestic violence hotline, said Kimbrell.  “It’s pretty dangerous to file your own TPO, and these are the kinds of cases that we prioritize.” 

SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS IN GEORGIA

More than 1 million Georgia residents represent themselves in civil and criminal courts each year. Here’s the breakdown of self-represented litigants in Georgia courts in 2021:

Superior Court — 68, 097

State Court — 188,101

Juvenile Court — 2,802

Probate Court — 99,238

Magistrate Court — 106,723

Municipal Court — 660,790

Source: Judicial Council of Georgia

Kimbrell noted that legal aid organizations take on clients with household incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level, which is $29,160 for an individual and $49,720 for a family of three. Cobb County Magistrate Judge Tabitha Ponder, who also serves as staff attorney for the Georgia Judicial Council’s Access to Justice Committee, advises people to “try using free legal resources first, before making a decision to represent yourself.” 

She said self-represented litigants do well in small claims court, where they often face other pro se parties. But she considers them at a disadvantage when trying a case against someone who has a lawyer. That distinction is most notable in dispossessory cases, she said.

“Most landlords are represented by counsel,” she said. “And I would say 90 to 95% of the tenants are not represented. And sometimes, sitting on the bench, I see they have legal arguments they can make, and there are some things they may be entitled to, but as a judge, our hands are tied; we can’t give advice from the bench. And this is important for folks who are facing evictions because our eviction process is really quick.”

In Cobb County, tenants fending for themselves can take advantage of mediators and free legal aid attorneys who are always present in the courtroom during eviction cases. 

“We’ve got a person there to speak with both parties and see if they can work out an agreement,” said Ponder. “And the [tenants] can get some sound legal advice. So that’s extremely helpful. What I’ve found with self-represented litigants is that most of the time, these folks don’t require a lawyer to represent them in person. They just need some advice and some resources to help them … it’s usually just one or two issues or questions on a form that they struggle with.”

Lawyers offering “limited scope” or “unbundled” services who are willing to take on just the part of a case that a person can’t handle for themselves can be the key to success or failure for a pro se litigant, she said. “Unbundling really works, and it’s something we need to see more support for statewide.” 

Cobb County also offers a free monthly family law workshop via Zoom covering divorce, contempt, paternity and legitimation. The workshop is mandatory for self-represented litigants, who can ask a family law attorney general questions via the chat, and have the option afterward to pay $100 for a 1.5-hour consultation with an attorney. 

Other sources of support include:

  • The Cobb Second Chance Desk helps individuals with a criminal history who may be eligible to restrict and seal their record. 
  • The Georgia Justice Project (GJP) helps people with record restrictions and pardons, offering free online workshops on how to clear criminal history. It also regularly runs free on-site legal clinics at law libraries and justice centers around Georgia.
  • The Fulton County Probate Information Center helps Fulton residents understand how to manage a deceased family member’s estate with free 30-minute consultations with a probate attorney. The Council of Probate Court Judges is a statewide resource offering dozens of standard forms for common probate issues in Georgia, as well as how-to videos and guidance on guardianship for minors and adults.

In Macon, the Middle Georgia Justice Center serves people in Bibb, Houston, Peach, Crawford, Monroe, Jones, and Twiggs counties. It handles heirs’ property, probate, property, guardianship matters, divorce, legitimation, criminal history relief, as well as ID card and driver’s license issues.

The center helps people whose income is up to 300% of the federal poverty level, which is $43,740 for one person and $74,580 for a family of three. People apply for legal aid online or in person, and then learn if they’ll receive support to use the center’s self-help resources, direct representation by a staff attorney or a referral to a pro bono or low bono lawyer. The center has expanded from three to six full-time employees this year with more than $500,000 in funding from corporate grants, local donors and federal funds.

What’s Next?

Ponder said the Access to Justice committee has just completed a new set of uniform landlord-tenant forms and how-to videos that should make it easier for people to represent themselves. They’ll be posted once approved by the Magistrate Court Council later this year. Their next project is legitimation forms that can be accepted in any Georgia court.

And the committee is currently working with Georgia Legal Services Program to create kiosks offering printable legal forms and instructions that will be placed in seven to 10 courthouses and self-help centers “strategically around the state, in legal deserts,” said Ponder. 

“I’m a firm believer that when people have the right resources, they can have success with any kind of case,” she said.

SELF-HELP, FREE AND LOW-COST LEGAL RESOURCES IN GEORGIA

JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF GEORGIAFree forms, instructions and how-to videos on family law and landlord-tenant law and a list of Georgia’s legal self-help centers.

GEORGIA LEGAL AIDOffers dozens of free forms, guides and resources to handle legal issues. 

GEORGIA LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAMNonprofit that serves low- and moderate-income clients in the 154 counties outside metro Atlanta.

ATLANTA LEGAL AID SOCIETY Nonprofit that offers free legal aid in civil matters for low- and moderate-income people across metro Atlanta.

STATE BAR OF GEORGIAFind an attorney. Tip: Use pricing filter to select limited scope, pro bono, fixed price, etc.

COUNCIL OF MAGISTRATE COURT JUDGES – Free forms generator guides you through questions to create free, customized forms to take to the Magistrate Court.

COUNCIL OF PROBATE JUDGES OF GEORGIAOffers statewide standard forms and how-to videos for common probate issues, including wills, estates, and guardianship for minors and adults.

GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECTFree resources and attorneys to help people with clearing criminal records, obtaining pardons and early termination from probation.

GEORGIA COALITION AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – Information on finding a shelter, finding a lawyer, how to be safe in court.

24-HOUR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE IN GA – 1-800-334-2836
Calls to the hotline are automatically connected to the caller’s nearest Criminal Justice Coordinating Council-certified shelter.

GEORGIA SUPERIOR COURT CLERKS’ COOPERATIVE AUTHORITYFree standard statewide forms on family violence, protective orders.

Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].

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Header image: The Georgia Supreme Court (Credit: Joy Walstrum)