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Notes From The bench

Hon. Carolina Maria Stark, Milwaukee County Circuit Court / WisTAF Board of Directors

Justice Mosaic in Capitol by PhotoPhlend

Lack of civil legal representation impacts the quality of judicial decisions, the confidence of litigants in the legal process, and the efficiency of the courts. As a Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge who recently presided over a full-time family law caseload for three years, I witnessed this on a daily basis while in the trenches with litigants in cases dealing with the issue that arguably matters most to individuals and community: their children.

First, litigants without representation struggled, and often failed, to present important, relevant information to the court. Information is critical to high-quality well-reasoned judicial decisions under the rule of law. Second, litigants without representation often voiced frustration with the legal process, a frustration rooted in the absence of an attorney to explain the process to them and prepare them for it. This frustration can lead to a lack of confidence in the legal process and the resulting judicial decisions, increasing the likelihood of post-judgment litigation such as motions to modify legal custody and physical placement of children. Additionally, this frustration can cause parents to withdraw from participating in the legal process, leaving the court with even less information upon which to make decisions. Finally, cases involving unrepresented litigants usually required more judicial time than cases where both litigants were represented. Given the high percentage of family law cases where at least one litigant does not have legal representation, the additional judicial time required for these cases significantly affects the efficiency of the courts in individual cases and systemically, resulting in longer wait times for court hearings and for reaching final resolutions.

Judges bear great responsibility for making good decisions under the rule of law, inspiring public confidence in the legal process and managing the courts efficiently. However, judges will never fill the void left by a lack of civil legal representation.