View from the Bench: How pro bono works

SUZANNE BROWN

After 32 years as a practicing attorney handling various family issues, I now sit “behind the bench” serving as one of the two Chittenden Superior Court Assistant Judges. Thank you for electing me to this four-year term position.

Family Court is a very busy court. I’m sure that you may have friends or family members who had filed for divorce or parentage. These cases are heard daily and focus on determining parental rights and responsibilities (physical and legal, formerly known as custody) and parent child contact.

The most important issue in these cases is the best interest of the child. I have seen many cases involving parties who do not have an attorney to represent them. Court clerks or judges cannot assist a party in how their case should be presented before the court.

Hiring an attorney can be expensive. Some attorneys charge between $220 to $300 an hour. In addition, they require a retainer, money paid in advance to fund the case. Ask for a free initial consultation.

What options do people have who cannot afford to hire an attorney? There are several programs that are available to people who are pro se litigants (parties without an attorney), some of which the public or attorneys may not be aware of.

The Vermont Bar Association (VBA) in Montpelier offers a variety of programs such as the Volunteer Lawyers Project and the low bono project where the Association keeps a list of attorneys who are willing to accept a divorce/paternity case on a “pro bono” (no charge) basis or at a lower fee ($60 an hour for 10 hours). The list is not expansive as there is no Vermont requirement that attorneys must handle a specific number of cases or perform a set number of pro bono hours. It is encouraged that attorneys do two pro bono cases per year, but there is no requirement that they do so. 

If your family case involves domestic violence, there may be a VBA grant to fund your attorney. In addition, mediation could be used by all in a family case without using an attorney. A list of mediators can be found at the Family Court. They may serve on a sliding scale. Call the Chittenden Family Division at 802-651-1709 for more information.

What if one of the parties hires an attorney and the other party is pro se. In my opinion, this places a pro se litigant at a disadvantage. Pro se litigants do not know the rules of evidence and may not understand how to present their case, to focus on the factors that the court will consider when determining rights and responsibilities/parent child contact.

Legal aid attorneys only handle divorces/paternity cases if domestic violence is involved as they typically only address issues regarding parent child contact and rights and responsibilities. 

The presiding judge and assistant judges cannot inform the parties of programs that do assist pro se people in obtaining legal counsel, however this is not the case in juvenile proceedings where the State of Vermont and the Department of Children and Families is involved with the family. 

For more information on how to find legal help, visit VTLawHelp.org or call Vermont 2-1-1, a statewide help directory which will put you in touch with legal services near you.

The Hon. Suzanne Brown is an assistant judge for the Chittenden Superior Court. The opinions stated in the article are not those of the Vermont judiciary, but are solely the opinion of Suzanne Brown.

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