Basil Austin, a Richmond restaurant supply company officer, strolled confidently into the Fairfax County courtroom in his one-day role as lawyer for his company in a small claims suit.
After his ordeal was over, he left the courtroom red-faced, stoop-shouldered and mumbling angrily.
Austin had no witnesses and no evidence to present except for an unverified invoice claimed the Imperial Gardens Restaurant in Reston owed his company $141.50 in consultant's services.
He attempted to explain to Fairfax County General District Court Judge John A. Rothrock what other officers of the company had told him about the fee, but Austin was opposed by an attorney who casually objected to Austin's attempt. Austin needed testimony in court from people with first-hand information about the case. The second-hand information that Austin had called hearsay in court parlance - could not be used.
Finally Austin ran his fingers through his hair, shrugged his shoulders and mumbled that none of the officers could come to Fairfax to testify about the matter. "So I guess I'd better forget about it in this case," Austin said.
Every year thousands of people making claims of under $5,000, or who are being sued, end up representing themselves in Washington-area courts. In Maryland and Virginia, where there is no court solely designated to hear small claims, people sometimes represent themselves against attorneys, which under the law forces judges to follow strict court rules that many laymen know nothing about.
The District of Columbia has a small claims court that allows rules to be bent slightly for people who represent themselves.
In the Washington are, about 10,000 small claims cases are heard each year, but there is no compilation of how many of those cases involve lawyers or the outcome.
A Virginia judge said most citizens who represent themselves end up losing, not because their grounds are weak, but because they don't present adequate evidence and testimoney.
"People just haven't been to law school and they're facing someone who has and they usually end up losing," said Fair County General District Court Chief Judge Robert M. Hurst.
Some states have small claims courts in which lawyers and use of legal rules are banned so that people making claims can more informally talk out their problems before the judge.
Two pieces of legistion to charge the small claims system in Virginia, which would have limited the use of attorneys in small claims cases, have been defeated within the last four years. The bills' sponsor said many lawyers in the General Assembly are afraid a law barring lawyers from some cases might put them and their colleagues out of business.
"There is some sympathy for attorneys who do a great deal of collection work and they do make money off that," said Del. Wayatt B. Durrette Jr. (R-Fairfax). "This bill would impact on them (lawyers). People get frustrated because they don't know how to proceed."
In Maryland, a bill introduced this year by Sen. Verda Welcome (D-Baltimore) that would bar lawyers from representing citizens in small claims actions, was rejected by the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
In the District, the small claims court allows lawyers to practice, but a judge may admit person's testimony even though an opposing attorney may object.
Suits claiming less than $750 can be filed for a $5 fee and are settled within two weeks, according to a spokesman for the D.C. Consumer Affairs Office. If a person wins a suit, however, he usually has problems forcing the debtor to pay, according to legal aid and consumer officials in the District. The persons sometimes has to file another suit to have the money taken from the debtor's assets.
The main advantage to the small claims-type of courts, sometimes known as "the people's courts," is that people do not have to hire attorneys and can file their cases for small fee usually about $6, depending on the jurisdiction. The cases are usually settled in less than two months.
Even with the relaxed rules, people representing themselves often do not do well in small claims cases.
In another Fairfax case, a man who said he was too embarrassed by his courtroom performance to have his name published, tried to defend himself against the Guaranty Bank and Trust Co., which was suing him for $535.50. The man's 1973 Lincoln Continental had been repossessed and sold by the bank, but the man still owed the difference on a loan he had with the bank.
Instead of defending himself, the man accused the bank of selling his mobile telephone for $50, although he said it had cost $500 to install.
The discussion became heated and the man said he wasn't paying anything unless the bank returned his phone or $500.
"Since you feel you've been screwed so to speak." Judge Rothrock told the man to pay up, then sue the bank for the phone later.
"Why should I continue paying them," The man said angrily. "I'm no fool. I don't think the law's supposed to work that way. It's not fair."
"With the evidence you have today you really can't present a case," Rothrock said."If you had invoices, proof, witnesses. I'd be glad to hear it."
"It's just hard on people to understand," the bank's attorney, Donal M. Fishman said later. "His word is just not good enough."
Although most small claims cases in Fairfax County are processed within an average of 46 days, in 15 per cent of those cases additional suits had to be filed to force debtors to pay, according to a recent report by the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Eventually an individual may be forced to pay about $40 as bond for the local sheriff to seize a losing defendant's property, according to Charles E. Vasaly of Arlington legal Aid. "If the other side doesn't want to pay, what can you do?" he asked.
In Fairfax, beginning at about 9 a.m., citizens and lawyers can beseen milling about the hallway directly outside the two civil courtrooms before their cases are called. The daily docket includes about 140 cases and about eight of those go to trial that day. The rest of the cases are either settled, dropped or continued until another day.
After the docket is read, which usually takes about an hour, trial cases are heard in one of two courtrooms.
If neither side has a lawyer, the judges usually let the individuals explain their case without following rules the evidence.
"Since neither one of them know what they're doing, it would be hard to stick to the evidence," Hurst said. "Nobody would say anything."
Not even Hurst can always tell who is appearing before him. He said one time a man was representing himself so badly that Hurst told him that he should retain an attorney or at least talk to one.
"It was very embarrassing," Hurst said. "It turned out he was an attorney."