MOUNT VERNON — In Mount Vernon Municipal Court, the majority of the people who receive traffic tickets or minor misdemeanor citations will represent themselves in court. However, many struggle with unfamiliar court processes and legal vernacular with the limited legal help available.
According to Municipal Court Judge John Thatcher, the most common mistakes self-represented defendants make in court are the failure to share evidence with the opposing attorney ahead of time, not obtaining subpoenas for witnesses and difficulty following the rules of cross-examination.
The court’s website provides links to its legal disclaimer, city and state laws and a digital copy of an Ohio Judicial Conference pamphlet about representing oneself. The pamphlet can also be obtained in hard copy at the clerk’s office. Still, people experience difficulties translating the general guideline into specific requirements in court.
At municipal court hearings on Jan. 22, the defendants who represented themselves struggled to have evidence or witnesses admitted due to failure to perform reciprocal discovery before trial. Reciprocal discovery requires that both sides disclose evidence and a witness list to each other before trial to prevent “trial by ambush.” All three self-represented litigants who disputed their cases did not submit their evidence and witness lists before the trial.
Explanation of the rules of discovery is not readily accessible on the court’s website.
A Mount Vernon woman, who disputed a traffic ticket for failure to stop at a stop sign, argued that she was told by the law director’s office that she may submit her witness list “at her discretion.” She was however not aware of the consequences of not submitting a witness list. Because she did not submit the list beforehand, she was barred from calling witnesses to the stand at the hearing.
Thatcher suggested in court that the law director’s office “record what you say, because people are misinterpreting what you say.” This comment coincides with a larger national call for better access to resources and assistance for self-represented litigants.
According to the National Center of State Courts (NCSC), the number of self-represented litigants is rising. This presents particular challenges to people’s experience with the court and the quality of information presented to judges.
In a phone interview with the News, NCSC Principal Court Management Consultant Danielle Hirsch said that the challenges self-litigants experienced in Mount Vernon Municipal Court are issues that courts across the country are grappling with.
On Jan. 22, Thatcher stopped multiple times in the middle of trial to explain court proceedings to self-represented litigants, especially during cross-examination. Often, defendants would begin to make their statements not in the form of a question to the witness.
“It’s hard for people to articulate in a question, really a statement they want to make,” Thatcher said. “Lawyers learn that cross-examination is really more about the lawyer testifying in the form of a question than asking a question… to get the witness to agree with you.”
People also sometimes go to trial without their witness because the witness has to work. Thatcher said that people can file a witness subpoena at the clerk’s office ahead of time and the employer has to honor the subpoena to release the witness from work on the trial date.
Reciprocal discovery, subpoena and cross-examination are the kind of legal procedures lawyers are trained to navigate. Thatcher also pointed out that lawyers are trained to analyze whether circumstances meet the specific requirements of a charge. On the other hand, these are unfamiliar territories for laymen who go to court without an attorney.
“How do we, as a system, better provide information and access for a growing number of self-represented people?” Hirsch asked. Hirsch’s work revolves around understanding self-represented litigant issues and promoting efforts that make people’s interaction with the court easier.
One innovation Hirsch recommended was Ohio Legal Help, a nonprofit organization founded in 2018 to provide the public with plain-language legal self-help information at ohiolegalhelp.org.
In response, the Mount Vernon Municipal Court website added a link to Ohio Legal Help on its resource page Monday.
“Legal information online is very important in demystifying the (court) process and making it less opaque,” Hirsch said, but adding that it is not a panacea for all the challenges.
While people might seek in-person assistance to navigate the court system, Thatcher emphasized that court staff are not attorneys and cannot give legal advice. Court staff can, however, provide general information about court rules, procedures and practices.
“Information is stuff you will tell anyone; it’s the rule of the game. Advice would be strategy about how one side could win a case,” said Hirsch.
Hirsch sometimes gives training for court staff about how to share information more transparently without crossing the line into advising.
An NCSC pilot project in rural Alaska found that people also tended to seek help from hospital staff, social worker and librarians before going to court, according to Hirsch. The project led to steps to strengthen relationships and share resources with community leaders to help the court get more information out to the rural Alaskan public.
In Mount Vernon, the public library is a local community hub that routinely assists people with court forms and researching court rules.
Reference Assistant Christie Smith said that the library regularly sees 15 to 20 patrons per week seeking assistance with court forms; most involve civil matters such as divorce. Although for traffic or minor misdemeanor cases, the library does not have ready access to court forms and sees fewer patron requests.
Like court staff, the library cannot provide legal advice or instruct patrons about what forms they should fill out. Patrons have to come in already knowing what they need and the library can access and print out the forms for them, according to Smith.
For people who do not have legal counsel and need information about what forms they may need, the library would direct them to Southeastern Ohio Legal Services (SEOLS).
SEOLS is a nonprofit organization with volunteer attorneys that provides selective civil legal aid. SEOLS occasionally hosts legal clinics in Mount Vernon; however, Thatcher acknowledged that the clinics are not very frequent so it might not be as helpful for someone with a trial coming up soon.
Some courts have implemented procedures such as discovery schedules set by judges, instead of relying on litigants’ initiative, according to Hirsch. Other innovations include simplifying the rules of evidence.
Thatcher said he allows a little leeway for self-represented litigants so they may say what they want to say and try to get their point across in court, as long as it does not affect the fairness of the trial.
“There are certain things we’ll let you do that if you had an attorney I probably wouldn’t let you do,” Thatcher said, adding: “I’m not going to nitpick for rules to try to defeat people from being able to explain what their position is. I still have to be fair, but we’ll give you a little leeway.”
Thatcher also encouraged people to seek out legal representation and not to assume that it would always be expensive.
“The Knox County Bar Association has the (Ohio attorney) directory. Lawyers in Ohio and everywhere have an obligation as professionals to do pro bono work from time to time,” Thatcher said. “You can go through the directory… call a lawyer and explain your situation. Maybe they are not willing to represent you for free, but there is a possibility they might.”
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