In a capitalist society, the less money you have, the more likely you’ll lose the things money can buy. Such is true for litigation, which comes with a high cost. Everyday, millions of people risk losing their homes, custody of their children, and more in civil courts because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer. What’s worse, if they end up representing themselves, most face a lawyer on the other side.
They lose, and the main reason for that is money.
Still, the average person dreads the thought of litigation on their own. Who wants to go to court, argue before a judge, write and file motions, and respond to interrogatories? Not your average person. When high court fees and other costs are added to the formula, most people are bound to be overwhelmed.
Let’s face it, given the odds of winning and the effort it takes to represent yourself, most people would hire a lawyer if they could, but for one or more reasons, including cost, they can’t. So what are the options when there are things worth fighting for?
Let’s review options through a sample civil case
Ciara, a self-employed bookkeeper, who works from her home in Arizona, is a single mom with two elementary school children. She makes $43,000 per year so is considered lower middle class.
After getting her children off to school everyday, Ciara walks her small terrier, Snuffy, down Abe Street. Three houses down, there is a large dog behind a fence. Every time someone walks past the fence, the dog barks and tries to jump. There is a “Beware of Dog” sign on the fence. One day, Ciara walks her terrier past the house, and the large dog succeeds in jumping over the fence. It comes after the terrier. Ciara is injured with bites on her hands, legs, and arms from trying to protect Snuffy, who also suffers injuries.
In response to the incident, Ciara has several choices, (1) do nothing and handle the costs herself with the help of a little insurance; (2) get help from legal aid; (3) borrow money to pay for a lawyer; and (4) represent herself in court.
What Happens if Ciara Doesn’t Pursue a Legal Claim?
Avoiding a legal claim is tempting. It even sounds easy and free of stress. Though insurance took care of some of Ciara medical bills, she still has accident-related bills in the amount of $3287 for herself. As for Snuffy, she paid $2200 for his emergency care up front. Unfortunately, she had to borrow the money from her brother and aunt. Further, she still suffers pain in both hands and is seeing a physical therapist regularly. It’s more difficult for her to do her job, which requires the use of her right hand. Her right hand was injured the most in the attack. She also suffers mental distress as a result of the incident.
If Ciara doesn’t take the claim to court, she’ll have to pay everything on her own without compensation for the slowed work hours and mental distress. Still, she won’t have to worry about court related costs, which could be high with an uncertain payoff.
Despite the risks, Ciara decides that she must fight the case. As much as she hates the idea of going to court, she can’t simply let her neighbor get away with not controlling a dangerous dog and causing her harm.
Why Not Legal Aid?
Once Ciara decides to pursue her claim, she ponders hiring a lawyer. She knows lawyers are expensive and wonders if she can get one through legal aid. The answer is no. First, Ciara’s type of case is not considered among the ones legal aid or legal assistance organizations help with. Second, and most importantly, Ciara makes too much money. Even people below the poverty line often can’t get legal aid. This predicament is not unique to Arizona. Ciara finds out soon enough that legal aid and legal assistance organizations won’t help her.
The Matter of Hiring a Lawyer
Ciara likes the idea of getting a lawyer. She can hand her whole problem to him or her and immediately reduce stress. That would be ideal–if she could afford it.
According to Homego, “Legal fees across a wide spectrum of situations can stretch into the tens of thousands of dollars. Higher, even, if any judgments are assessed. Not even celebrities and public figures famed for living lifestyles of the rich and famous are spared.”
Unfortunately, lawyers aren’t paid by the job. They’re paid by the hour, and by the hour, they can be pretty steep, even in Ciara’s town. According to one source, attorneys can charge from a low of $100 per hour in small towns to a high of $400 in large cities. Too, oftentimes a lawyer would need a retainer to start, say around $5000. Some might charge as little as $2500 though.
Ciara doesn’t have the money for a lawyer and considers borrowing it. She has good credit and a decent job. She can take out a one-time personal loan, use her credit card for the first payment, or get a line of credit. The downside to borrowing is that Ciara doesn’t want to pay long-term for a short term problem. And what if the lawyer doesn’t help her? She could end up owing the lawyer and still have to pay the other bills. She dismisses the idea of hiring a lawyer.
That leaves Ciara with one option, do it herself.
Costs to Consider When Representing Yourself
Litigation isn’t free. There are many costs involved, including clerk fees. Ciara would have to pay them whether she has a lawyer or not. Yet, Ciara is serious about her case. She does some research of statutes in her state to determine whether she should pursue it. When she learns that she has a strong case, Ciara takes a chance and goes to court on her own.
Once Ciara settles on that choice, she surveys the costs identified with a claim in her county. They’re high but reasonable compared with paying an attorney. She then figures out how to file suit. Below are the rough estimates she calculated in court fees.
Cost to file a civil complaint and summons: $300
Service of summons: $50
Court reporter: $65 an hour (low) per hearing. This is optional but highly recommended.
Cost of a 4-hour deposition: $240. This is optional depending on strategy.
Subpoenas: $40. This is optional depending on strategy.
Transcripts: $300 – $900 (Per transcript). This is optional depending on strategy.
By the time Ciara serves summonses to the two defendant owners of the big dog, she is out $459 and aware that she will need more money later. She’s relaxed for now though. Four hundred dollars is not a huge amount of money, and she feels she can pace herself and learn what she needs to know to get a settlement or judgement in her favor.
Ciara is ready to have her day in court at a price she can afford.
The Last Word
When you must choose between battling it out in court, quitting or hiring a lawyer, battling it out might be the most attractive option. If you have a strong case, it can be much better and cheaper than quitting. Further, though court costs and fees are steep, they’re not nearly as much as paying for a lawyer. The biggest downside to representing yourself is your own knowledge. In the event that you go this course, be ready to put your best foot forward and pull out your wallet on occasion.
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