BATON ROUGE – A Houma, Louisiana case is bringing back an old argument as to whether defendants should represent themselves in court cases.
The First Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge sent the case against Earl Lirette III, grandson of the owners of Tiger Audio, and the business back to state district court last month.
Lirette and the business represented themselves during the case.
Judge John Walker of Houma ruled in 2014 that Lirette and Tiger Audio failed to properly meet deadlines in submitting court documents before a civil trial two months earlier. Walker found the defendants in default and ordered them to pay damages totaling $353,374.94 and close to $26,000 in fees. The case revolves around a man who is accusing a Tiger Audio employee of beating him in a dispute over unpaid wages.
Sue Talia, a California-based private judge, said this case is an outlier and not really about the usual problems of self-represented litigants overcrowding the courts.
“As a judge, I would be more persuaded by the idea that the litigant didn’t get the order until several of the deadlines had expired than by the fact that they represented themselves,” Talia told the Louisiana Record. “I also agree that sanctions are an extreme remedy. I wish they had said more about the terms of the order that wasn’t complied with.”
Talia said that she thinks the defendant in this case got lucky in receiving a second chance.
“As I tell people all the time, you can’t assume the judge won’t hold you to the same standard as a lawyer,” Talia said. “That’s why they should at least consult with someone to make sure they are complying with procedures.”
The judge said she can’t believe that if the defendants were facing such a sizable potential judgment, they would figure it might be worth their while to hire an attorney to make sure they were following the correct procedures.
“Presumably, after they were hit with the judgment, it became a higher priority for them, as I assume if they couldn’t handle the lower court, they didn’t do their own appeal,” Talia, who has written about defendants representing themselves in court, said.
Talia said it comes to a fundamental dilemma.
On one side, there needs to be way to balance the need for transparency, predictability and fairness (which require complex rules that are available to and apply to everyone) and the need for access to justice by ordinary citizens.
“We can’t just throw the rules out the window because some people can’t afford (or choose not) to consult an attorney," Talia said. "If we did, there would be no predictability in the law. There’s a reason it takes years of law school and a bar exam to become a lawyer.”
Talia said it is eventually up to the litigants on whether they want representation or they want to do it themselves.
“I have much sympathy for people who truly cannot afford to buy even an hour or two of a lawyer’s time," she said. "I have less sympathy when it is a DIY’er (do-it-yourselfer) who decides he can get everything he needs for free off the internet and doesn’t need to ask anyone if his assumptions are correct. In the latter case, he’s making a consumer choice. That’s his right, but it comes with consequences, which he should be prepared to accept just in case he’s wrong and the person who spent the time in law school and law practice actually does know more than he does.”