Any ex-cult member who has to deal with a legal situation may find themselves at sea like I did. I have compiled as much as I can remember of what I learned through the process in the hopes that it might be of some use to others.
I received a subpoena to a deposition. I was a witness, not named in the case, therefore it was no real threat to me, but since some of the others involved in the case were members of the group I am a former member of, it was an emotional issue for me. I also had never been involved in any kind of legal action before, did not know the rules of the game, or have a clue as to what to expect the procedure or atmosphere to be like.
This goes without saying, but just to put it onto the record, if you receive a subpoena to a deposition, and it lists documents to bring, do not trash, hide or otherwise do anything to those documents. It is what it is, and at this point you want to cooperate. If you try to hide anything, that could bring you more trouble later. I will talk in another blog about how to think ahead and protect yourself as much as possible from unnecessary legal troubles.
Like most of us who leave a high-control group, my finances were pretty low. I’m not in poverty, but I also don’t have the cushion that many people my age have been able to save. So besides the emotional issue of having to deal with people from my former group, I also had fear about not being able to afford a lawyer, and whether this would put me into debt.
I started researching for free legal advice on the Internet and found good resources. The three free sessions I had with three different lawyers were invaluable with their knowledge and advice, but it took many hours of research and networking to get those three references.
http://www.masslegalhelp.org was an excellent resource. I was able to “chat” with legal librarians who looked up the answers to my questions.
A site in Connecticut is http://slsct.org/ which I have not used, but I would think could certainly point you in the right direction. I also assume each state will have something similar. Even if the site does not seem to list your particular need, get in touch with them anyway. I did not know if anyone could help me, but I asked anyway. You never know what good references you might get.
The librarians at http://www.masslegalhelp.org gave me answers to these questions:
– I didn’t know if I could have a lawyer at a deposition and found out I could. They also sent me literature on the rules of a deposition, which helped me know what to expect.
– I found out that court-appointed lawyers, at least in MA, are only for criminal cases, not for civil cases. What this means is that any fees were going to be solely my responsibility. I wasn’t going to get any financial help from any state agency. This in itself can put a person off, because who can afford a lawyer? I was quoted $350/hour by one lawyer and $275/hour by another. That can really add up. But don’t quit yet. At least keep asking questions to learn what the process is all about.
– I asked next if they could refer me to any lawyers. They gave me this resource:
– I found out that I could call the lawyers who had sent me the deposition and say I needed more time in order to find a lawyer, and get the deposition re-scheduled. I had the right to do this.
– The deposition did not spell out what the case was about. I learned that I could call the courthouse and ask them for that information. They told me to ask for the civil clerk’s office.
When I called the courthouse, they said I had to come in person to read the court file, but that it was public record, and I could make copies of it. The copies cost $.25 per page, so take plenty of quarters with you. In my case, this was a 2 hour drive one way, but I considered the effort worth the knowledge that would make me feel more confident and in control of the situation.
When I checked out the http://www.mass.gov/courts/programs/legal-assistance/find-lawyer.html website I filled out a form, and ended up in a phone call with someone from the Mass Bar Referral service. I had to decide how much to tell him, and decided to go for broke and just tell it as it was. I told him the bare facts of the subpoena, and why I was worried – i.e. that these were members of a group I had left, not on amicable terms, and I thought the extent of the documents they were asking for was overboard, etc. I also was upfront with the legal librarians and MassBar that I needed a lawyer that would pro-rate to my income. They gave me the name of a lawyer to contact, which I did. Of course, during all this, I was scared, but pushing forward anyway.
I called the lawyer and set up a preliminary meeting with him. He said the first half hour would be free, to my great relief. This meeting was very informative. I felt I could not afford him, but he helped me to understand the process more and gave me options on what I could do.
– He could negotiate what documents I needed to provide, and change the date of the deposition. That would be minimal involvement and cost.
– If he continued with me and went to the deposition with me, that would increase the time and money.
– I could start my own action, without him, by going to the courthouse and filing for a protective order. This is a request by me for the court to limit what documents they ask for, saying that not all of them are pertinent to the case. I had never heard of this before, so was glad to know this was an option.
When I read through the court documents related to this case, my name was not mentioned anywhere. It made me wonder why I was involved, so I had a second “chat” with the legal librarians and learned:
– The subpoena came directly from the lawyers, not through the court. This is legal and legitimate because lawyers are considered “officers of the court”. This is why a copy of the subpoena was not in the court file at the courthouse.
– For the first time I learned about the option of filing a motion to “quash the subpoena.” This is different than a protective order. It would require the judge to assess the reasonableness of the documents asked for in the attorney’s subpoena.
– The notarization on the subpoena does not have to be that raised stamp that we often see. It can also be an ink stamp.
– They gave me another reference. The Mass Bar Association has a free legal advice service. 617-338-0610 or 877-686-0711
I also talked with a couple of friends about looking for a lawyer and got other referrals that way. They gave me free phone calls, and one said I could call the lawyers and ask them why they needed all of these documents from me. I had not known whether it was considered “OK” or not to talk with the lawyers. He also told me more about the motion to “quash the subpoena”. He sent me the official form to do this. It’s important to get a lawyer’s help in these steps. The official form makes things go more smoothly. Once I had the form I had to again drive it the 2 hours to the courthouse, but it was accepted and a date was set for the hearing. When I went to this hearing I did not understand the importance of being prepared to defend my motion. If you take this step, be sure to practice explaining your reasons ahead of time. Being under the stress of actually appearing in court to argue against the people/situation that trigger your emotions can make it difficult to concentrate and remember what you want to say. At this point I still did not have a lawyer, so was “pro se” that is, representing myself. Also be prepared that the other lawyers will bring their “opposition to the motion to quash the deposition.” In other words, they will bring their reasons why they want you in, and you will have to read those on the spot and be able to articulate your reasons against their reasons. I was not prepared for this.
Once I retained a lawyer, I felt tremendously at ease. He was there to protect me, and he knew the legal landscape and how to navigate it. I no longer had to learn how to invent the wheel. He laid out a plan of action, simple but effective. He gave me papers to read about how depositions work, and how to conduct yourself in one. This is very important information. He made sure I was prepared and knew what it was going to be like. The unknown is stressful and fearful, but knowledge is power and security.
Lawyers are allowed a great deal of latitude in depositions as they are a “discovery process.” They can ask a wide variety of questions, even if the information eventually is not allowed into the courtroom testimony. But what you say is as if you are in a courtroom, so above all, telling the truth is the most important rule to follow, and I would add the second guideline is to answer the questions but don’t volunteer information.
At times I had wondered if it was going to be worth the cost, but once I talked with my lawyer I knew it was worth any cost. He knew how to handle not having to bring in the documents that did not relate to this case. Your lawyer is not allowed to say hardly anything in a deposition, but he gives the opening explanations and just his being there helped me to keep my confidence and clarity. You can also take as many breaks as you want, and can talk with your lawyer out in the hall.
The actual deposition was not a bad experience and I am glad for what I now know. I have a desire to make this information more accessible to all ex-cult members. I also would love to see a fund started to help pay lawyer expenses. Most everyone who leaves a cult has a huge job ahead of them just reintegrating into society, finding a job, supporting themselves, not to mention the emotional rebuilding that is taking place. Being hit with a lawyer bill of $1,000+ (or more) is a huge burden. I have a vision for a fund that can help with these expenses. I do not know how it will come about, but I believe it can happen.
The next blog will be what I have learned so far about writing publicly and what can or cannot be done to protect your interests.