PHOTO: Jennifer Garcia, 23, of Hartford, Conn., stands in front of Hartford Family Court after a child visitation hearing. Garcia is among scores of people nationwide who have been representing themselves in court because they can't afford a lawyer. Court officials across the country and the American Bar Association have been pushing to get more attorneys to provide free legal services to those in need.
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Jennifer Garcia stood alone before a judge with a stack of legal papers in her hands, answering questions about her personal life.
She has acted as her own lawyer in state Family Court in a paternity, child support and visitation case on and off for three years, but representing herself in a courtroom full of strangers still makes her nervous.
"Sometimes I get this gut feeling because you never know what the judge is going to say," said the 23-year-old single mother of two from Hartford.
Garcia is part of a crush of people who are representing themselves in the nation's civil courts because they can't afford lawyers, who typically charge $200 to $500 an hour. The boom has overwhelmed courts and sparked new efforts to get attorneys to meet what the American Bar Association says is its professional responsibility to offer free legal services to people in need.
The increase in self-represented parties stems from a recession that has left fewer people able to afford lawyers and created new waves of foreclosure, debt collection and bankruptcy cases, judges and lawyers say. Judges say self-represented people are slowing down court dockets because they typically don't know what legal points to argue or what motions to file.
"There's a crisis in this country," said John Levi, board chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Legal Services Corp., the nation's largest funder of civil legal aid for the poor. "Courthouses are being filled with people just showing up, trying to figure out what their rights are. If you're a low-income person and you have a legal need, it is not easy to get it addressed."
Legal Services has a 58-member pro bono task force comprising judges, attorneys, law school deans and other legal experts working on recommendations due out next month on how to get more lawyers to provide free services.
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