Jill M. Scheidt says forms cannot replace the knowledge attorneys bring to the table
The president of the Berks County Bar Association recommends that everyone have an attorney rather than filling out self-representation forms available in the county law library.
"Practicing law and litigating cases are much more than filling out forms," attorney Jill M. Scheidt said. "Over 40 percent of the people in custody actions do not have lawyers. There is an expectation that people do not have to hire lawyers because they can fill out forms."
Scheidt acknowledged that the forms do warn people not to represent themselves.
"We have horror stories of people losing assets because they don't know what they are doing," Scheidt said. "Lawyers provide advocacy and counseling. They know the substantive and procedural laws involved as well as the rules of evidence.
"All litigants, represented or unrepresented, are bound by the laws and rules, and the judges expect that they will know them."
Scheidt recommend that people contact MidPenn Legal Services, which offers services for people with limited incomes.
"If we visit the ER and cannot afford medical services we aren't told to read a form and treat ourselves," Scheidt said. "Non-lawyers don't know what they don't know."
Scheidt said the bar is against a movement afoot that anyone can practice law.
Valerie West, managing attorney of MidPenn Legal Services, said she agreed with Scheidt that it's better to have a lawyer.
However, West said, the demand for free legal service outstrips the agency's resources.
"Poverty has gone up and our funding has gone down," she said. "There are a lot more eligible people with resources than we have the capability to represent. I am very pleased the president judge organized a task force to address this issue."
West said that the agency also depends on volunteer attorneys from the bar association. In 2010, bar members represented 199 people pro bono for MidPenn and provided over $80,000 to the agency for operating expenses, Scheidt said.
Scheidt said the non-represented people are spending too much time asking court staffers for help when the staffers are not allowed to give help.
"Routinely, county employees are asked to provide legal advice, which is not only a legal and ethical dilemma, it is a distraction from the employees doing their jobs," Scheidt said.
By Holly Herman, Reading Eagle, 610-478-6291, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Reading Eagle