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July 13, 2010 12:22 PM

Is the Court System for Ordinary Folks Broken?

Posted by Zach Lowe

Our normal fare here includes bet-the-company litigation, M&A, and the state of business in the 200 or so largest law firms in the country--not exactly the sort of stuff that involves regular folks with regular legal problems. But there is a whole other civil court system out there that includes landlord-tenant fights, debt collection cases, and run-of-the mill disputes, and two stories out today prompt a simple question: Is that system broken?

That might sound extreme, but we can at least say this: More litigants are going pro se, and those litigants appear to be faring worse than those who can afford an attorney, according to The National Law Journal, one of our sibling publications, which reports today on a survey of state judges conducted by the American Bar Association. About 60 percent of those judges said they are seeing more pro se litigants during the current recession, and 62 percent told the ABA such litigants experience worse outcomes in their cases. (About a third of the judges said pro se litigants don't fare any better or worse than folks with lawyers.)

And then comes this lengthy piece in The New York Times examining the boom of lawsuits against debtors. The story centers on the debt collection law firm Cohen & Slamowitz, which has filed at least 80,000 debt collection lawsuits in each of the last four years. You read that number right. As the NYT asks: "How is that possible?" 

It's possible because more credit card companies and other creditors are selling small or difficult to collect debts to debt buyers for pennies on the dollar. Those buyers then try to collect as much of the debt as they can, and they are increasingly turning to lawsuits to make that happen, the NYT says. The suits are plagued with the problems you'd expect, the NYT reports. "Most consumers fail to show up in court, and those who do rarely have a lawyer," the paper says. Law firms like Cohen & Slamowitz use automated software to file huge batches of suits quickly, and the process results in crucial errors, including misstatements about how much the debtor actually owes, the NYT says. 

"It is a factory approach to practicing law," one attorney told the NYT. 

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