When meeting with a perspective client, one of the most important things we discuss are legal fees. Inevitably, the potential client will ask what he or she can do to help lower his or her fees. Can they do their own photocopying? Can they take filings to the courthouse themselves? Will it save them money if they look for legal authority on the internet and forward it to me?
While I recommend certain things, like being organized, obtaining financial documents yourself, and responding promptly to correspondence and pleadings, I never suggest that a client cut certain corners. Leave the legal work, such as research and drafting, to the lawyers. After all, you are paying for legal knowledge and experience.
Because many people feel they can not afford a lawyer, yet they make too much money to qualify for Legal Aid, they choose to represent themselves. For some people, this may be a good decision. For many others it leaves them floundering in a legal system that is not designed for navigation by a non-lawyer.
I recently handled a support matter against a gentleman who was representing himself. It was not a simple support matter. While the Master gave him some leeway at trial, the gentleman lacked basic knowledge regarding what information he needed to present to the court and how to present it. When we received the Master’s decision, it was obvious my opponent should have hired an attorney.
While in a support matter, your mistakes might cost you literally, in a custody matter, your lack of knowledge of local rules and procedure could cost you figuratively. You need to know what to file in order to have your custody matter listed before the court and what to file in order to bring your child with you to court. If you do not file the necessary paperwork, your custody matter might sit indefinitely without ever being heard by a Master or your child might not be able to express his or her desires to the court. You may waive your right to pursue certain claims, such your opposition to a relocation.
There is a reason why attorneys charge money. Legal work is detail oriented and requires a specialized body of knowledge. Missing a deadline, failing to present your case effectively, or filing the wrong paperwork can result in a loss for you.
That said, there are plenty of places in Pennsylvania that can help you if you can not afford a lawyer. The place to start is at the law library of your local court house. There, you can find copies of the statutes, cases and local rules that will dictate what you need to file, when you need to file it and how to file it. You can also contact Legal Aid or other similar agencies to see if you qualify for free or low-cost legal services. http://www.palegalaid.net/