You know you have a case. Someone has refused to refund your deposit of $2,500 on a horse you planned to buy. The case, you believe, is strong. After all, the purchase agreement both of you signed had language requiring the seller to refund your deposit if the horse failed a pre-purchase exam. And fail he did. You need the $2,500 refund, but you realize that the cost of a lawyer would likely exceed this amount. Are there other options available within your budget?

Yes. This article will discuss low cost legal services and alternatives to the legal system.

What Makes Legal Services Costly?
In the vast majority of cases, you must pay your own legal fees. Legal systems in other countries, such as Great Britain, impose a “loser pays” rule. In the United States, a court might order the loser in a legal dispute to pay the winner’s legal fees under these circumstances:

A statute in the applicable jurisdiction expressly provides that in cases like yours, the court can order the lose to pay the winner’s fees. Provisions like this are commonly found in deceptive trade practice and consumer protection laws, particularly if there is evidence of a “willful” violation of the law.

A court rule in the applicable jurisdiction provides that the loser must pay. For example, many court rules allow the court to order the loser to pay the winner’s legal fees after the court has specifically ruled that the losing party asserted a frivolous claim or defense in a lawsuit.

The parties had a legally-binding contract, which clearly states that the loser must pay the winning party’s attorney fees in the event of a legal dispute.

Do All Lawyers Derive Their Fee From a Percentage of the Winnings?
Everyone has seen lawyer advertisements that state: “You pay no fee unless you win.” This describes a contingency fee arrangement in which your legal fees will be contingent on (or a percentage of) what you may recover from the losing party. This arrangement is common in personal injury cases or cases that involve loss or damage to something of serious value. Your state may regulate the maximum percentage the lawyer can take as well as the types of legal matters that cannot be handled on a contingency fee basis.

Is a Lawyer Appropriate for Every Legal Dispute?
The decision is yours. However, if you prefer to handle a dispute on your own without a lawyer you have a few options. Here are some of them:

Community Dispute Resolution or Mediation Centers
Your community, or one nearby, may have a community dispute resolution center or a neighborhood justice center. These centers are designed to help people quickly and inexpensively settle their differences. With the cooperation of both parties in a dispute, these centers can help schedule a meeting in which you and the other party can discuss the problem and how to resolve it. Depending on the center, they can provide offices and trained personnel to help the parties work constructively and positively. The process of mediation, which many of these centers conduct, was explained in this author’s book, Equine Law & Horse Sense.

To find out about community resolution or mediation centers in your area, contact your local courthouse, library, city hall, or state or local bar association.

Small Claims Court
Every state has a small claims court, although the states may name the court differently. These courts are typically situated within each county and are established to resolve disputes involving rather small amounts of money. The maximum amount of money within the jurisdiction of a small claims court varies from state to state. In Michigan the maximum dollar amount is currently $1,750. Other states such as California, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas allow people to seek of to $5,000 in a small claims court case. Tennessee allows recovery of up to $10,000 and in some instances $15,000. Small claims courts are usually designed for people to represent themselves in court without a lawyer.

Are There Other Low Cost Methods for Resolving Legal Disputes?
Yes. Although you may have a legal right to receive a court-appointed and court-paid lawyer in some criminal matters, this is not the case in civil legal matters. If you qualify for free or low cost legal services, there are a few options available. Here are some:

Legal Aid Organizations
You may be eligible for free or reduced cost legal services through legal aid programs in your area. Eligibility varies, and you will be asked to provide information about your income, living expenses, financial needs, and the size of your family. Check your phone book under the heading “Legal Aid” or “Legal Services” or contact your local courthouse.

Free Legal Clinics at Local Law Schools
Many law schools nationwide offer legal aid clinics for people in their communities. The assistance available may be limited to consumer legal problems, traffic tickets, and simple matters. Contact a law school in your area to find out if programs are available for you.

Other Legal Assistance Programs
In many states across the country, bar associations (lawyer groups) have organized special programs designed to offer low-cost legal services to people of limited means who are not eligible for free legal aid yet cannot afford the rates typically charged by lawyers. These programs are encouraged by the American Bar Association and are frequently known as “Greater Access to Justice Projects.” To find out whether your state has a project in progress, contact the American Bar Association [(312) 988-5000] or your state or local bar association.

In conclusion, please keep the following ideas in mind:

  • The notion of a “court appointed lawyer” in all types of legal matters is a myth. Only in certain types of criminal cases do courts appoint and pay defense counsel. In all other types of cases, you are responsible for securing your own lawyer.
  • The notion that the loser pays legal fees in all disputes is also a myth. Typically, the loser would only pay legal fees if ordered to do so by a court. Courts may order this if a specific statute, court rule, or contract¬†clearly¬†provides that the loser must pay.
  • Not all “legal” disputes demand the involvement of a lawyer. In some cases, you and the other party to the dispute might be able to resolve it on your own. Community dispute resolution programs, found in many areas, might help the parties reach their own mutually-acceptable resolution of some disputes.
  • If you have been sued, don’t wait to find a lawyer. If you wait too long, you risk missing important court appearances or deadlines. While your newly-retained lawyer might manage to secure extensions of time or reverse adverse action taken against you, there are no guarantees. Also efforts by your lawyer to reverse adverse action, in themselves, can be costly.

Julie I. Fershtman, Esq.
About the Author

Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC
One Northwestern Plaza
28411 Northwestern Hwy., Ste. 500
Southfield, Michigan  48034

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There are Alternatives to the High Cost of a Lawyer

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