By: Rob Harris
Although sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, others question the origin of the proverb: “He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” My vote for likely candidate is an attorney marketing trade group.
Whatever its origins, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently provided at least temporary relief to a member of The Ridge at Back Brook who initially undertook to represent himself in court proceedings challenging his obligation to pay dues and associated country club costs totaling approximately $87,000, which liability, with finance charges, had by the time of judgment grown to more than $250,000.
The member’s substantive defense apparently was that his dues “were improperly utilized for capital and debt service, contrary to the terms of the membership agreement, which provided it was to be utilized, if at all, exclusively for operational expenses” As the court explained, “Defendant asserted that plaintiff took this course because ;the project was millions of dollars over budget’ even though plaintiff ‘affirmatively advised’ at the contract’s formation that ‘there was no debt and construction was within budget.’”
The trial court, however, refused to entertain the member’s arguments, finding that he failed to present them timely and in accordance with the court’s rules and procedures.
The appellate court, however, showed some empathy. As its opinion states:
We … hold that a pro se litigant is entitled to nothing less than that to which a litigant is entitled when represented by a negligent attorney. That is, … pro se litigants are not entitled to greater rights than litigants who are represented by counsel. But we also [have] recognized…– in concluding that a self-represented litigant was deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard due to a lack of understanding of motion practice – that it is ”fundamental that the court system . . . protect the procedural rights of all litigants and to accord procedural due process to all litigants.”
Consequently, the appellate court sent the case back “for further consideration of defendant’s motion to be relieved of the consequences of his failure to adequately represent himself.”