SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The night before his jury trial, La Plata County resident Grant Ebbenga reviewed his evidence, drew a map of his property and studied statements the victim made to animal-control officers.
Ebbenga, 49, was representing himself last month in La Plata County Court. He was charged with five crimes: harboring a vicious dog, having an at-large dog, having a dangerous dog, having no proof of a rabies vaccine and having no license for the dog.
He said he felt anxious about representing himself but confident about his chances.
“I’m looking at this as a learning experience more than anything,” he said the night before the trial. “I don’t have anything to lose, really. I’m learning about the system.”
Courtroom litigants who represent themselves often get more than they bargain for. They are overwhelmed by the paperwork, inconvenienced by the number of court hearings and blindsided by the procedures.
Yet more people are choosing to represent themselves, said Michelle Sylvain, who was hired this year to provide assistance to self-represented litigants in the 6th Judicial District, which includes Archuleta, San Juan and La Plata counties.
(A similar position was created in the 22nd Judicial District, which includes Dolores and Montezuma counties.)
Sylvain cited two possible reasons for the increase in pro se litigants: the ailing economy and a do-it-yourself society.
More people are using the Internet to research problems, from diagnosing medical conditions to assessing their legal situation, she said. But when it comes to practicing law, the task can be daunting.
“The words are strange, and they don’t understand the process,” Sylvain said. “It’s as if you were taking a trip to a foreign country, and you didn’t know the language.”
Some people look at a form and don’t know if they are the plaintiff or the defendant, Sylvain said. Those who make it past the first question often become stumped on subsequent questions, she said.
Ebbenga said he was unfamiliar with the term “voir dire,” which means to tell the truth, and refers to the process by which jurors are questioned before being selected to sit on a jury. Yet he seemed familiar with the jury-selection process.
Ebbenga was accused of allowing his dog, Jack, to roam free May 20, 2012, near his property north of Oxford. The dog bit a woman on the back of her leg, according to a report she made to La Plata County Animal Control. The bite broke skin, and the woman underwent rabies shots as a precaution.
Ebbenga faced up to six months in jail and about $8,000 in restitution if found guilty on the most serious charge – having a dangerous dog. But jail time was extremely unlikely given the circumstances, and Ebbenga’s homeowner’s insurance said it would cover the restitution, he said.
Without the threat of jail or hefty monetary penalties, it didn’t make sense to hire a lawyer, he said.
“I’m not stressed about it at all,” he said before the trial. “There’s no way they’re going to give jail time on me because I’m an upstanding member of the community.”
Ebbenga was found guilty on three counts and acquitted on the most serious charge. He was ordered to pay about $250 in fines.
“You’ve got to love our litigious society,” he said after the trial.
“How much do you think a lawyer would have cost me compared to the $250?” he said. “It would have been $2,500 instead of $250.”
Ebbenga’s inexperience became evident during the trial.
He became rattled when Judge Martha Minot said certain documents he brought to court were inadmissible.
“Your next point,” the judge said.
“Wow, you’re really moving this along. Thanks for giving me time to collect myself,” he said sarcastically.
The judge smiled.
During an interview, Minot said judges have to stay neutral to both sides and cannot help pro se litigants. Attorneys are more likely to know the rules of evidence and can make valid objections, whereas pro se litigants may not, she said.
Ebbenga apologized for his inexperience during closing arguments.
“I’m sorry I’m stumbling through this procedure somewhat,” he said. “But I’m not sure what I’m allowed and not allowed to say. I appreciate your patience with a nonattorney in this case.”
Several people in the legal community advised against self-representation if the consequences are too high.
Even attorneys know better than to represent themselves. There is a famous quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, who was a lawyer: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Prosecutors and judges sometimes grow impatient with pro se litigants who lack knowledge of the procedures, said Durango defense lawyer Brian Schowalter.
“There’s a little bit of schadenfreude going on,” he said. “It can be kind of funny to watch people who don’t know the rules.”
For those wanting to represent themselves, the 6th and 22nd judicial districts now employ self-litigation coordinators.
Sylvain said she can help people locate and fill out forms in a variety of civil cases, including divorce, name changes, small claims, landlord-tenant disputes and money claims for more than $7,500.
The self-help program is not intended to be a substitute for attorneys; rather, it is meant to provide assistance to self-represented litigants, she said.
“People have been really happy about the service, and that they can get some of their questions answered,” she said.
If no legal forms exist or if the process seems overly daunting, people should consider hiring a lawyer, Sylvain said. Also, if the case involves a large corporation or a government body, the process can become more complicated, and people should considering hiring an attorney, she said.
“Just getting that person served can be complicated,” she said.
The state Supreme Court has allowed lawyers to offer unbundled legal services, meaning they can assist litigants with certain aspects of a case – for example, filing a motion or arguing a protection order – without signing on for the entire case.
Modern society tends to turn to the courts to resolve conflicts, Sylvain said. People who litigate their own cases might develop a better appreciation for alternative-dispute resolution, for example, reaching an agreement through mediation or a settlement, she said.
Ebbenga said he’s not afraid to stand up to the district attorney, and he’d do it again.
“It’s certainly been a learning experience,” he said.